By Lee Shapiro
For years, Chicago was the home of bakeries that produced products known around the country – Salerno Butter Cookies, Eli’s Cheesecake, Sara Lee Pound Cake, Reddi-Whip, and Hostess Twinkies. What made this area unique? Weren’t the same ingredients – eggs, butter, flour, milk, flavorings – available elsewhere? Was the labor force uniquely trained or skilled? Was the source of infrastructure to support the baking industry limited elsewhere?
The answer to me is a matter of focus. The ingredients to build a successful business are readily available but it takes effort, tenacity and persistence to bring them together in a way that will produce leading companies. It requires a leader or group committed to a goal take on the challenges that are associated with starting something novel or unique – even if the company is a fast follower of an idea spawned elsewhere.
There have been a number of studies of Silicon Valley’s success in breeding so many technology companies, such as the work from The Silicon Valley Project at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and MIT Technology Review. Box CEO, Aaron Levie,recommends these five books to fully understand the scope, importance and history of Silicon Valley.
The factors cited for breeding successful Silicon Valley technology companies often include access to capital, talent and a cultural acceptance of risk. While incubators have been sprouting around the country at record rates, the availability of mentoring and support alone will not be enough to deliver the next generation of breakthrough discoveries that will spawn the next transistor, microprocessor, or Internet.
Focus comes when there is an external force or threat that drives the immediacy of purpose. Consider the Manhattan Project during WWII or the challenge issued by President Kennedy to put a man on the moon during the height of the Cold War. It can also be a competitive threat – as Andy Groves simply stated, “only the paranoid survive.”
The recent announcement of the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDI) at the UI Labs is one such effort holding much potential. Its goal – to meet the competitive challenge that has sapped our region of so many manufacturing jobs lured away by cheaper resources elsewhere in the world. But the sponsors of DMDI believe that the future of manufacturing will not be determined by brawn but brain – and I agree.
Backed by $320M in funding from government and industry, the new Digital Lab will not only have the financial capital but also the intellectual capital that comes from the support of major research universities across the Midwest and beyond. There is backing by world-class technology companies, including 10 of the Top 50 performing manufacturers. Access to super-computing power, networks and cloud resources will enable new product development, expedite product of products and drive innovative new services.
And just maybe the factory of the future will not only create new jobs and economic growth but also lead to a great tasting, low cholesterol, low carb, fat-free, gluten free, guilt free successor to the Salerno Butter Cookie. One can hope.