Funding innovation should not be such an innovative idea

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As Connecticut struggles to embrace policies and programs that promote innovation and entrepreneurial exploration, neighboring states appear far more focused on long-term strategies for establishing a viable pipeline of workers able to meet marketplace demands.

Recently, New York City and Boston were two of 17 communities across the United States recognized as Lumina Foundation Talent Hubs. These cities earned this designation by meeting rigorous standards for creating environments that attract, retain and cultivate talent, particularly among today’s students, many of whom are people of color, the first in their families to go to college and from low-income households.

Each Talent Hub focuses intensively on populations critical to raising the nation’s overall post-high school attainment level to 60 percent of working-age adults by 2025 —18-to-22-year-old students, older adults with college experience who stepped out before finishing their studies or adults with no formal education beyond high school. Talent Hub communities will receive $350,000 apiece in grant funding over 42 months to support local efforts to educate more people, allowing community and post-secondary leaders to better meet the specific needs of residents.

Connecticut should take note: Our state is failing its residents by not adequately focusing on early education needs, by not ensuring a well-lighted path to higher-education opportunities and by not doing everything in its power to make sure a college education is accessible and affordable.

Employers have noticed, too, and are leaving the state for more suitable destinations —like Talent Hub cities Boston and New York— where the commitment to grades K through 12 education is more solid, as is financial aid, grants and scholarships for post-secondary education. These cities have established strong reputations as robust employment arenas. They are promulgating creative incubation and innovation strategies that are resulting in a coveted pipeline of highly educated, enthusiastic workers in key STEM-related fields like bio science, technology, IT, healthcare, research and engineering.

Though Connecticut didn’t earn Lumina recognition, it does harbor many individual innovation efforts that, until now, have rotated in their own orbits. But concern by the leaders of Connecticut’s private and public colleges and universities, buoyed by support from CT Next (a subsidiary of Connecticut Innovations, a quasi-public/private network of more than 1,500 members dedicated to providing venture capital and support for innovative, growing companies and programs) are banding together to address and promote innovation opportunities in Connecticut.

Two new initiatives launched by CT Next this past year are worthy of mention. The first was The Connecticut Higher Education Innovation & Entrepreneurship Working Group that brought together 35 presidents of resident public and private colleges and universities to examine, discuss and propose solutions for improving innovation collaboration among themselves, within the business community and with state government. This consortium is dedicated to exploring how best to improve job creation and competitiveness. They are examining best practices from other states and individual efforts within Connecticut, and they are looking at the role higher education plays in developing a strong workforce.

CT Next also helped launch Innovation Places, which brings together a variety of informed and enthusiastic stakeholders to promote innovation and entrepreneurship within specific geographic areas. Working with the Connecticut legislature, CT Next was successful in procuring a legislative commitment to spend $2 million per year over the next five years to support initiatives that further the goals outlined in the Higher Ed Working Group’s master plan.

For a relatively small investment, Connecticut’s higher-education institutions are forming stronger connections, dedicating resources and expanding our innovation collaboration and infrastructure. These efforts need to grow, be sustained and supported so our state is not passed by in the next round of talent hub grants, or seen by employers, graduates and potential new students as a state that isn’t working hard at ensuring a viable economic future.

John J. Petillo is President of Sacred Heart University in Fairfield.

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