Innovation Nation

Forget about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What's really making America tick these days is innovation, an idea that has been on my mind a lot recently. This is a crucial time for the company I lead as we rethink our own innovation strategy and enjoy the clean slate of a global name change that debuted this week. It's like the first week at a new school with all my smartest friends with me. Plus, I'm moderating a fantastic panel on Thursday in Boston at the World Summit on Innovation & Entrepreneurship called "Trends and Traditions of the Innovation Nation." Sitting on the panel: Noubar Afeyan of Flagship Ventures, Geraldine Hamilton of Harvard, John Levis of Deloitte, Adam Pisoni of Yammer, Jacques Rogozinski of Inter-American Investment Corp., Len Schlesinger of Babson College and Gary Shapiro of Consumer Electronics Association; Jamil Mahuad, the former president of Ecuador, will be the panel's challenger. This timely convergence got me thinking about the power of innovation and the best places to be innovative. I'm looking forward to hearing the ideas they have about who will be the leading global entrepreneurs of the future, what our new innovation capital will be and where true innovation will thrive.

Being the first with a game-changing idea, coming up with the next big thing -- this is what's firing us up. If the United States can't lead the world in war power or economic might, it can still win the creativity race. (Earlier this year, Ad Age reported on Adobe's global study on creativity; not surprisingly, Americans value creativity as key to growth and regard the U.S. as the world's most creative country.) And that's a race we all seem to want to sign up for. Here in Innovation Nation, there's growing interest in being labeled an innovator, in declaring certain locales "innovator zones," even reading books and magazines for or by innovators (Tim Ferriss and Fast Company, anyone?). Apple envy was just the start. It's as if innovation is the holy grail, an independent party that will bring us peace, prosperity and eternal youth.

As a business leader creeping toward the middle or end of my corporate career (the joints ache, the hair is losing its luster), I keep thinking about how to stay innovative. Unlike Grandma Moses, I don't want to be over 80 for my big hurrah, so how do I keep being an innovator? Where is my next Insider's Guide series, Cyberdialogue, Intelligence Factory or metrosexualmania? Have I slowed down these last 10 years, or do Jack + Bill (PRWeek's PR Innovation of the Year, 2009) and The Sisterhood (runner-up for that honor in 2011) count?

Innovation, 21st-century American style, blurs boundaries and takes many forms. It can intersect with entrepreneurialism, with academia and with creativity (making it the common thread among three disciplines that don't necessarily play nice with one another). It's our new national pastime, yet Innovation Nation is hardly monolithic. Rather, it's more like a series of city-states, like Palo Alto or Pittsburgh, which injected itself with digitivity and regained its swagger and energy. Innovation feeds on innovation, and innovators gravitate toward one another -- competition improves everyone's game. But what plants those first seeds? What factors make them take root and thrive?

One factor (but not an absolutely necessary one) is a university. Most of today's Innovation Nation capitals are anchored by universities. It's not just Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, either (though Stanford's is at the forefront of blurring creativity and innovation). Look at what's happening in Tucson with investments from the University of Arizona, which produces more than $530 million in annual research and is among the top 15 public research universities in the U.S.: Its world-class research groups are partnering with local businesses from small startups to global enterprises. Or in Farmington, Conn., where the announcement last year that a $1.1 billion outpost of Maine's genomics- and personalized-medicine-focused Jackson Laboratory at the UConn Health Center campus there prompted Gov. Dannel Malloy to declare that "Connecticut is going to lead in this emerging industry."

That said, we automatically think of certain smallish college towns -- Ann Arbor, Austin -- as hubs of innovation, but that's not the whole story. The top-ranking American cities (three of the top four, overall) in last year's Innovation Cities Top 100 Index were megamarkets that, not coincidentally, have equity players as well as big airports and universities: Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City. But I have to wonder: Would Boston be on the list if it weren't for the Cambridge strip from Harvard Square to Kendall Square? (I was also surprised to see so many European cities on this list, given that there's still a culture of a "blacklist" and failed entrepreneurs have trouble attracting future financing.)

Now New York City is clamoring even more loudly to be heard in Innovation Nation. Fittingly for a mayor who made his own billions with information technology, Michael Bloomberg is embracing an interinstitutional arrangement among City Hall, Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa that will turn New York City's Roosevelt Island into a competitive technology campus. Bloomberg has said that it will give other entrepreneurial-science hubs "a run for their money."

Another factor is political will. Mayor Bloomberg wants to make New York City a competitor (scratch that -- a winner). Gov. Malloy helped green-light the Jackson Lab project. And Utah has become the land of innovation thanks in part to initiatives such as the state-funded USTAR (Utah Science Technology and Research), a long-term investment to strengthen the state's knowledge economy and innovation infrastructure. USTAR is in year six of helping foster new technology in the state by providing funding that accelerates the ability of the University of Utah and Utah State University to recruit world-class researchers, especially in high-growth areas such as energy and biomedical innovations. Over the past 20 years, more than 180 companies in Utah have been founded on university technologies, and more than 120 of them are prospering today.

With all that in mind, here are the cities and schools I'm keeping an eye on -- the capitals and incubators of Innovation Nation:

Places to watch
Ann Arbor
New Haven
Portland, Ore.

Top undergraduate schools for entrepreneurship and innovation (according to U.S. News & World Report):
Babson College
Indiana University-Bloomington
Syracuse University
University of Arizona
University of California-Berkeley
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
University of Pennsylvania
University of Southern California
University of Texas-Austin