I shared my views on business growth during a talk with entrepreneurs in Hawaii last week. Far away from Washington, D.C., I learned from my audience several very important things about our region’s place in entrepreneurship and innovation.
The first thing that struck me was how our capital region has a powerful influence on many of the innovators I met. Forever Oceans , a company offering high-tech ways to curb overfishing and foster sustainability, was seeded by significant federal funding. It uses technology spun out of Lockheed Martin, one of the largest government contractors in our region.
Etaphase is a material sciences start-up developing new materials that could dramatically change data transmission and the energy consumption of existing communications equipment. Again, the company was seeded by federal dollars and because the technology has national security benefits, the company has a growing nexus to our region.
The W.M. Keck Observatory atop Hawaii’s dormant Mauna Kea volcano is leading the charge on planet discovery and other major discoveries of the nature of our universe. As recently as last week it was in the news illuminating the nature of galactic expansion. NASA is a partner.
There I was, 4,772 miles from home, yet I kept seeing evidence of just how pervasive Washington’s influence is on technology innovation.
Beyond technology, Hawaiians use another technique entrepreneurs in the greater Washington region have harnessed: Capitalizing on proximity. Its entrepreneurs boast unique local businesses including restaurants, breweries, and tour boats. Entrepreneurs take advantage of proximity to larger companies — in this case the hospitality industry — to grow profitable ways to cater to both locals and the millions of visitors spending vacation dollars here every year.
As is the case in our own region, entrepreneurs were clearly following opportunities, and letting bigger companies drive the nimble innovation of smaller businesses.
Although some patterns of behavior are the same between our region and Hawaii, there is still a large difference in the overall level of activity. In the recent study by the Kauffman Foundation which showed how the greater Washington region is highly entrepreneurial, it found Hawaii was not as much.
If the behavior patterns were the same, why was there such a difference?
I suggest the difference lies in density and interconnection. Not population density, but rather the abundance of opportunities that come from larger and smaller businesses working closely together. If you look at our own region’s ability to create and sustain entrepreneurial innovation businesses, the density of opportunities to gather resources and sell highly-profitable companies are very high. The 6,000 mergers and acquisitions of companies in our region over the last 20 years bear that out, as do high levels of business formation.
What we see clearly — both in the muggy skies above the Capitol and the blue skies above our country’s 50th state — is that where there are opportunities, entrepreneurs adapt, regardless of location. We know that for new technology innovations the role of federal funding from our region is nationally important to creating new technology opportunities.
And when you can achieve density and interconnection, innovation and entrepreneurship thrive.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.