Thanks for the visit, but we need R&D investment

July 17, 2006


President Bush toured Cabot Microelectronics Corp. in Aurora in lab coat and safety glasses on his recent visit here. The president touted his American Competitiveness Initiative, his proposal to train new math and science teachers, and his 2007 budget proposal to invest $137 billion on federal R&D.

It was great seeing the commander in chief talking tech in Illinois instead of California.

The president even lauded Cabot in his weekly radio address saying, "Cutting-edge firms like Cabot are creating good jobs for our workers, and helping to keep America competitive."

My question for the president is this: Will any of those federal R&D investments arrive in Illinois to create jobs here? In February, Chicago lost a competition for a $15 million grant from the U.S. Labor Department to study innovation and economic growth. We're talking billions in federal R&D, and that's worth chasing. California and New York know that and so do our neighbors in Michigan and Indiana.

Who's in charge?

So is any one individual in Illinois leading the charge to land those important federal R&D investments?

"To my knowledge, no," said Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Roper. "I don't know of any one organization that owns the role."

Roper suggested checking with Tom Thornton, president of the Illinois Technology Development Alliance, an experienced hand at corralling federal R&D dollars.

"I have no idea who's quarterbacking it," said Thornton.

Thornton's a local tech insider. He once worked for House speaker Dennis Hastert, and he served as president of the Illinois Coalition, a public-private cooperative venture created to coordinate efforts to guide federal R&D investments to Illinois.

In January 2005, Thornton's ITDA split off from the Illinois Coalition. His group agreed to leave federal R&D advocacy to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. Since then the Illinois Coalition has been dormant.

"Eighteen months later, the Illinois Coalition has not been reformed," said Thornton, though he added that the state has interviewed candidates to head the organization.

Thornton's concerned. "In the leadership vacuum, each lab and university is fighting it out alone, and finding collaborations where they can."

Thornton believes the state can play an important role fostering public and private collaboration to pursue these new funds.

"Every other state in the union is doing this," he said.

PCTEL Inc. Chief Executive Officer Marty Singer, who serves as the chair of the Midwest Council of the American Electronics Association, agreed. "The political leadership in Illinois at the local, state and federal level has to advocate Illinois," Singer said.

For its part, state officials say they are committed.

DCEO Director Jack Lavin said, "Gov. Blagojevich and I will continue working closely with the Illinois congressional delegation to bring even more federal dollars here that will keep us ultra-competitive in our global economy. This has been an administration priority for the past several years, and it will certainly continue."

Lavin said he believes Bush came here because we're a high tech leader. He said the governor knows innovation leads to investment that leads to higher paying jobs. He pointed to the state's focus on growing the homeland security industry, BIO2006, and efforts to land big federal projects like the Rare Isotope Accelerator, FutureGen and the International Linear Collider.

But Blagojevich's team can't do it alone. There needs to be bi-partisan support from the Illinois congressional delegation and collaboration with our universities and business leaders.

Illinois knows how to chase federal highway funds. Let's hope the high-profile members of the Illinois delegation, including Speaker Hastert, Senators Barack Obama and Dick Durbin know how to work together to land federal R&D investments for their home state.

Presidential visits are transitory. Hard cash federal R&D investments in Illinois mean a lot more. They mean jobs.

Bits & Bytes

Click Commerce CEO Michael Ferro was named Entrepreneur of the Year in the technology category by Ernst & Young in the Lake Michigan area....nPhase CEO Steve Pazol talks about the global opportunity of machine-to-machine technology at Thursday's Smart Services: The Business Behind M2M conference at the Chicago Athletic Association.

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant.



 ©2006 Marion Consulting Partners