EcoMap ReCap: The 2023 SSTI Annual Conference

EcoMap ReCap: 2023 SSTI Annual Conference

The State Science and Technology Institute (SSTI) held its 25th Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia last week as the EcoMap team made its first foray into this particular ecosystem of science/tech-based government, university, and economic development leaders.
Photo of three men standing together with lanyards around their necks. On the left is a black man in a red blazer and white shirt, center is a white man with glasses in a grey shirt, on the right is a black man in a black t-shirt that says "Equitable Accessible Ecosystems"
The EcoMap SSTI Representatives
(L to R): 
Sherrod Davis, Kevin Carter, and Markise Williams
The SSTI Ecosystem graphic

The State Science and Technology Institute (SSTI) held its 25th Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia last week as the EcoMap team made its first foray into this particular ecosystem of science/tech-based government, university, and economic development leaders.

As with any conference we attend for the first time, our team can’t help but wonder, “What exactly is the is this conference all about?”. We had a feeling that SSTI would be “our people” after seeing their conference logo which harkens back to our own – an interconnected ecosystem of nodes and edges.

And it didn’t take long to feel right at home.

Conference Dynamics

The Economic Development Administration (EDA) played a notable role in this year’s SSTI conference, with the theme of Technology-Based Economic Development (TBED) front and center.

For the majority of the first day, there were closed door workshops for select attendees with unique opportunities ahead of them, such as those who received funding from the EDA for the Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBB RC), the Treasury’s State Small Business Credit Initiative (SSBCI), SBA’s Regional Innovation Clusters (RIC), and more niche focus groups to really connect with practitioners around the country sharing a common challenge or opportunity.

Apart from the smaller workshops, there were plenaries on Thursday morning featuring a powerhouse trio of SSTI President Dan Berglund, Principal Adviser for Community and Economic Development at the Atlanta Fed, and Sarah Miller from Atlanta Fed’s Center for Workforce and Economic Opportunity, and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce Alejandro Y. Castillo. And SSTI got conference goers out of the hotel and into the heart of Atlanta with offsite member receptions and tours of higher ed institutions.

Chatham House rules

As SSTI President Dan Berglund noted in his annually-anticipated Opening Plenary, Trends in Regional Innovation, the SSTI Conference operates under “Chatham House Rules”. In this environment, attendees are free to exchange ideas and experiences freely without worrying about a quote being directly attributed. The exception for this rule was any of the large open plenary sessions, so you will find slides and paraphrased comments from these sessions only.

Finding Funding

There was a noted emphasis on viewing government funding for ESOs in a similar vein as an entrepreneur might view seed funding for their startup. These funding opportunities – while potentially transformational – are not meant to be sustainable in their own right. The vast majority of funding issued by agencies such as the EDA, SBA, and NSF are one-time grants (with some such as NSF Regional Engines or EDA’s Tech Hubs having multiple “Types” or “Phases”). This means the ESOs that receive these funds to implement novel, game-changing programs can’t necessarily rely on grants as a sustainable source to keep the momentum going. Similar to the advice that they give to entrepreneurs on a daily basis, they will need to leverage these opportunities to develop a repeatable model to ensure the impactful programs and people who run them can continue to operate effectively.

Slide from Dan Berglund’s Opening Plenary detailing total funding for govt. TBED programs
Slide from Dan Berglund’s Opening Plenary showing the percentage of one-time funding

The Power of Language and Storytelling

There was another powerful point illustrated through a survey of American attitudes towards certain phrases in the TBED space. While there is broad non-partisan support for the concept of converting government funding into new companies and jobs, the way in which that is described is crucial to selling the end result. For example, “small business” is incredibly favorable while “startup-companies” tend to hold a slightly more negative connotation. And the most glaring difference is between “converting research” (over 80% favorability) and “commercialization” (less than 50%), with some respondents associating commercialization with “destroying the Christmas season 😢”.

Favorability scale of key words/phrases associated with SSTI

These public polls make it clear – the language we use to tell the narrative of our work matters.

How can EcoMap help with Tech-Based Economic Development?

At EcoMap – we view technology as a tool, not a panacea.

Tech is meant to be leveraged by people in order to save time, create scale, and just generally make life easier. It is not meant to replace the impact that only humans can make.

In the field of economic development, utilizing modern technology such as EcoMap can help free up time answering the oft-asked, time-consuming questions (like what specific resources are out there to support a specific entrepreneur?) in order to allow the people behind these organizations to build deeper relationships with one another and offer critical support/advice that technology just can’t replicate.

A screenshot of the Valley Business Compass platform which supports Shenandoah Valley entrepreneurs

That is our North Star for the technology we build.

We allow ecosystem building organizations to get a better sense of “who is doing what” around them by centralizing a region’s key assets – organizations and the specific resources they provide – into a single hub. These networks are often invisible and information about them is typically shared based on tacit knowledge in the form of ecosystem builders connecting dots.

But how can you accurately connect all dots if you’re missing key plot points on the map?

No one’s job should be to exist as a walking, talking directory of all this information. Let our technology do that work so you can focus on doing what you do best.

Conclusion

With SSTI’s silver anniversary conference coming to a close, I have a much better answer to the question, “What exactly is SSTI?”

To borrow some more EDA language, I would call it a “Community of Practice”. Attendees are doers, movers, and shakers in their respective communities who come here to find out how to do, move, and shake at a higher level. There was a common sentiment of improving by coming/working together and addressing shared challenges. And the importance of community cannot be understated.

As Dan Berglund noted in his opening plenary, SSTI is a place where practitioners can come together to discover, “I’m not alone and I’m not crazy”.

And that’s a sentiment we could all benefit from feeling more in our day to day work.

*This blog post reflects the author’s own view points on the 2023 SSTI Annual Conference and is not formally affiliated with nor does it represent an official recap of the conference by the sponsoring organization

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