By David Eiranova
LOWELL -- With a sharp downward revision of 2011 state economic growth fresh in people's minds, participants at last night's Merrimack Valley Venture Forum on entrepreneurship brainstormed for ideas to give business a bigger bounce in Massachusetts.
"One of the things we've clearly seen is that state government itself is not going to move the needle in terms of advancing the Massachusetts economy," said Greg Bialecki, the state's secretary of Housing and Economic Development and last night's keynote speaker. "Our success is going to be built by collaborations and partnerships with government at all levels, state and local, but also with the business community and also the academic community."
Last week, MassBenchmarks, a journal of the state economy co-published by the UMass Donahue Institute and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, reported that economic growth in the state last year was just 1.8 percent, down from a previous estimate of 2.9 percent.
Bialecki told the crowd of about 100 people that to see new and faster growth, one issue that needs to be addressed is dealing with the infrastructure needed by businesses wishing to come here. He said more than 100 communities in western Massachusetts have no broadband access, but that while the state has a reputation for a high cost of living, that's not the case in western Mass.
On the other side, he said, having high-ranked colleges and universities may be key to keeping Massachusetts a viable place for companies to locate.
"The number-one reason companies are here is clearly for the talented workforce," Bialecki said.
UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan said that while Massachusetts students in the lower grades and in college, rank high nationally, it's the students who stay in-state who have a more beneficial effect on the state's economy. He said a large number of those who graduate from state schools tend to stay, helping to keep the value they've gained within the local economy.
Both men said it's clear that schools can serve as incubators -- not just for intellectual achievements, but to help along the growth of nascent industries such as the nanoparticle field, which has been a target of work done at UMass Lowell.
"One of our real efforts in economic development has to talk about the innovation economy as being the heart of Massachusetts economic success, both in the past as well as the future," said Bialecki, who praised the efforts of one of the sponsors of the forum, the Massachusetts Medical Device Development (M2D2) Center, which helps startup medical-device companies obtain venture capital to fund efforts to bring inventions to market. Many small firms need to have a prototype in order to do business, and incubators like M2D2 can help businesses to get venture capital to allow them to launch products.
While manufacturing in Massachusetts is not at the scale it was decades ago, Bialecki said there are still more than 7,000 manufacturing firms in the state. He said the right strategies can bring down the cost of doing business here, which is a reason that regulation of these industries is under scrutiny, in an attempt to clear the path for their success.
Anthony Iacobucci, CEO of Birchtree Medical in Newbury, said he was frustrated with attempts to keep the manufacturing of his firm's product -- the company makes computerized wearable medical devices -- in Massachusetts, because he found there is "a lot of pressure" to manufacture overseas.
Certainly, being one of the "great global centers of innovation," as Bialecki said of the state, can go a long way toward propping up any economy, but there's more to the mix than just that.
Bialecki stressed economic growth is not fueled by innovation alone, but by the right business strategy. He said the popular opinion is that an innovation-based economy may be great for Boston and Cambridge, but what about other locations?
Partnerships among businesses are vital to continuing the rate of growth that has kept Massachusetts growth above the nation as a whole, and in the last year, Bialecki, Gov. Deval Patrick and Bialecki led a delegation of academic, government and business people to Israel, the United Kingdom and Brazil.
The idea, Bialecki said, was to explore "how do we build partnerships that benefit both?"
In 2010, the Legislature directed the governor to develop an "explicit economic development strategy for the state," according to Bialecki, who went on to say that it would be impossible to just put together a plan and tell people, "Here, do this." Instead, he said, you have to create a vision, and that vision is being kept alive through collaborations between academia, business and government.