It’s been more than a year since the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Research Park Corporation and LSU paid local consulting firm Emergent Method $50,000 to study how LSU and RPC can work more closely together to better serve Baton Rouge’s entrepreneurial community. In April, the firm released the results of that study, which essentially concludes the ecosystem is fragmented and recommends the two entities collaborate more.
Rather than simply pointing out systemwide deficiencies and serving as a cheerleader for collaboration, however, the study lays out a road map for an often-discussed but long-resisted move: A joint venture between RPC and LSU, allowing for better management of expenses across the ecosystem while also increasing the odds of attracting more paying tenants to better utilize existing facilities.
The study went so far as to provide an 18-month timeline detailing how the two organizations could gradually integrate, collaborate on services, eliminate waste and dedicate resources where most needed.
Yet four months later, there’s few visible signs of change. Both entities continue to walk and talk as they did prior to the Emergent Method study, and there’s few signs of either seriously embracing any of the recommendations outlined in the 72-page document.
Instead, those entrenched in Baton Rouge’s “innovation ecosystem” say they already foster a healthy working relationship with each other and are opting to take a big-picture approach to Emergent Method’s suggestions, using its overarching emphasis on collaboration as a launchpad for joining forces to raise awareness about each organization, the services they offer and what kind of progress they’ve made over the past several decades.
“There’s a lack of awareness because there hasn’t been a joint marketing effort,” says Genevieve Silverman, RPC president and CEO. “People find out about us through word of mouth, and sometimes we do joint marketing for the Louisiana Tech Park or Baton Rouge Entrepreneurship Week, but there’s no cohesive effort.”
Since the late 1980s, the local ecosystem has only expanded (see timeline on following page), adding entities in an effort to scale up and compete with big regional players for more entrepreneurs. For example, LSU has made significant strides in licensing its technology, measured by invention disclosures, patent applications filed and issued, and licenses executed.
But the need for change—at least, to some degree—is clear. Many challenges still exist: There’s no formal angel investor network, facilities are largely vacant, and the number of startup businesses parishwide plummeted by almost 25%, from 2,951 to 2,231, between 2010 and 2018.
While it might seem of little consequence, both RPC and LSU are recipients of public dollars directed toward entrepreneurship and, according to the study, “have an obligation to ensure those funds are utilized with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.”
Is an elevated profile all the organizations need to achieve this? With several small-scale efforts underway, local organization leaders and economic development professionals are banking on it.
In the works
The startup community shouldn’t be driven by support organizations like the RPC and LSU, says Silverman. It should be driven by entrepreneurs.
That’s why RPC hired Brooks Thompson Consulting (and later, Carter Global, after it became part of the national firm) to draw up a corporate engagement strategy for the organization. Thus far, the strategy encompasses several key areas: Connecting high-potential startups with high-quality mentors; growing the workforce through the Apprenti program launched this year, as well as other programs; innovation partnerships between corporations and local entrepreneurs; and, finally, financial support for RPC programming.
It’s also why BREW will this year showcase several startups previously identified as having the most potential, allowing them to connect with prospective investors and mentors during a private event.
“We need to build an entrepreneurial culture that starts with having our successful companies plugged into support startups and emerging companies,” Silverman says.
RPC and LSU have been meeting with Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s office to discuss moving from its existing database of resources for entrepreneurs (the Louisiana Entrepreneurial Assistance Portal) to SourceLink, which bills itself as “helping cities, states and regions with job creation through entrepreneurship-led economic development systems for ecosystem builders.” Unlike LEAP, SourceLink points users to specific pathways to answer their questions about resources, incentives and other items.
Discussions have been put on hold because it appears Louisiana Economic Development will soon make a program available that could serve the same purpose, says Dave Winwood, executive director of LSU Innovation Park and the Louisiana Business and Technology Center.
“These are complex and fairly expensive to put together,” says Winwood, who replaced longtime leader Charlie D’Agostino upon his retirement in January. “If we can piggyback on something [LED] is doing, that would be great.”
What to expect
Leaders from both organizations are hesitant about embracing the line-by-line recommendations from the Emergent Method study, particularly as it relates to streamlining services.
Though the brainchild of RPC, Silverman stops short of endorsing all the study’s recommendations, saying it provided “a good way for us to think about how we make progress as an ecosystem.”
Down to six people in his office, Winwood says cutting any more positions would be equivalent to shutting down operations. While attributing the high percentage of vacancies at LSU’s incubators largely to natural turnover, he’s trying to address the issue through some aesthetic changes, eyeing opportunities to invest in renovating the facilities.
LSU also plans to expand Innovation Park, adding new roadway infrastructure to increase accessibility and developing another 150 acres of land to accommodate up to 75 new companies, creating a projected 2,100 jobs and spurring as much as $80 million in economic activity. RPC has committed $200,000 to help fund the project.
“I don’t know how this will fall out—whether we’re going to memorialize this or move on and get with it,” Winwood says of the study’s recommendations. “I understand the notion that we need to be engaged, but I’d argue we’re quite heavily engaged. If it’s that we need to be more visible, that’s what we’ll do.”
There appears to be some glimmers of hope, including recent efforts to kickstart one of Baton Rouge’s longest-running problems—the lack of an angel investor network. A group of angels has been informally meeting with companies for the past several months, says BRAC President and CEO Adam Knapp, whose organization has curated a growing list of 60 to 70 people who have expressed interest in becoming an angel investor.
Knapp also points to LSU, where the number of invention disclosures increased by 97% between 2012 and 2016. With 173 invention disclosures in 2016, LSU ranks fifth among its 14 SEC peer institutions for the metric, which is considered the first—and by some measures, most important—step in commercializing innovation.
Despite drops in the university’s total research expenditures (down 3%) and industry-sponsored research expenditures (down 40%), LSU has seen an uptick in new patent applications filed over the five-year period (44%), issued U.S. patents (129%) and licenses executed (78%).
“It shows that we’re at the edge of innovation,” Knapp says. “It’s the beginning of what starts the cycle.”