More than 300 people gathered yesterday at the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center for the launch of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox, an effort to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation in the Merrimack Valley. I confess that I’m finding it hard to get a good feel for this strategy in my own mind. Yesterday’s conference was excellent with many dynamic and interesting speakers. My notes are packed with valuable nuggets of important management strategies. What I’m lacking at this point is a personal grasp of the big picture that’s involved. In an attempt to sort it out for myself, I’ll be writing several posts on this event.
The driving force behind this effort is a gentleman named Desh Deshpande who came to Canada from India in the 1970s and to Massachusetts in 1984. Here in the Commonwealth, Dr. Deshpande created several very successful technology companies including Sycamore Networks and Cascade Communications. Now Dr. Deshpande seems to devote his time and energy in philanthropic efforts, but his charitable endeavors are geared to promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. His foundation has already set up successful “innovation centers” at MIT and in the city of Hubli, India. The third such entity will be based here at UMass Lowell and will have as its goal the encouragement of innovation and entrepreneurship directed at societal problems rather than at new technology.
In his remarks yesterday, Dr. Deshpande provided some context for this effort. He explained that into the 1970s, all the important research and development in America was being conducted by large corporations such as Bell Labs and IBM. With globalization, however, these and other corporations cannot afford the investment in such R&D efforts and remain competitive. Consequently, “the center of gravity for innovation has shifted to college campuses.”
For innovation to happen, you “need a critical mass of people talking to each other, sharing ideas” and the “key is getting local people excited about projects.” That’s where the “sandbox” imagery fits into this – that’s the place where all of this informal collaboration occurs. In this case, the “sandbox” is a geographic place, but it’s an entire region – the Merrimack Valley. Deshpande says that colleges have a new role to play: they must make the education experience more relevant, to allow students to unleash their creativity to help solve societal problems. The mission of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox is to provide small amounts of money to help finance these efforts. To this end, the Deshpande Foundation donated $5 million with the expectation that the academic partners in this endeavor – UMass Lowell, Merrimack College, Middlesex Community College and Northern Essex Community College – to raise a like amount.
The ultimate goal is not to help just the Merrimack Valley, but to create a model for promoting local innovation to address local problems that can then be exported around the world.
As I wrote at the beginning of this post, there were many interesting speakers at this event. In the coming days I hope to post summaries of the comments of several of them in an attempt to further develop my understanding of the Merrimack Valley Sandbox.