Albuquerque’s Plan To Build The Most Entrepreneur-Friendly City In America

Victor Hwang, CEO & Co-Founder of T2 Venture Creation, from Forbes

The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico has declared an ambitious goal. It wants to become the most entrepreneur-friendly city in the nation.

That’s a tall order. But more and more, it’s becoming an achievable target, because people are able to understand and apply the science of innovation ecosystems. That knowledge is helping Albuquerque get the right mix of social, business, government, and cultural factors to spark together.

Albuquerque—or ABQ, as the locals call it—has many of the basic assets in place. The city boasts a high-ranking, well-respected research university, two major research institutions, and a business-friendly local and state government. It is the cultural and entrepreneurial hub of the region.

These assets are crucial to Albuquerque’s success. But to foster entrepreneurial innovation at scale, you need more than mere assets. More importantly, you need the ecosystem. And for the ecosystem to happen, a city and its people needs to interact, mesh, and flow together. Dance in rhythm, if you will.

In a natural ecosystem, certain species have greater impact than others. While almost every species serves a purpose, certain species are “more equal than others” when affecting the vibrancy of the entire system. These critical species are called keystones. One example of a natural keystone species is the beaver, whose cutting down of old trees to build dams promotes the growth of new trees. Beaver dams—and the water that builds up behind them—also create breeding grounds for fish, salamanders, newts, and frogs. And the water behind beaver dams irrigates the surrounding area.

In human ecosystems, certain people or institutions can be keystones as well. They facilitate connections, command respect, and influence the push and pull of an ecosystem toward greater strength.

Elizabeth Kuuttila is one of the keystones of Albuquerque. She’s the CEO of the University of New Mexico’s STC.UNM (formerly known as Science and Technology Corporation), a non-profit company dedicated to cultivating a “Rainforest in the Desert” in Albuquerque.  Her team won an Innovation Ecosystem Award at my organization’s last Global Innovation Summit for their efforts.

Kuuttila noticed that Albuquerque had the right elements, but they weren’t necessarily interacting in the right ways. Much of the institutional infrastructure is certainly strong. ABQ thrives because “we can recruit entrepreneurs who want to live in Albuquerque because of the natural beauty, the sense of community, the weather. We’re very fortunate that we have this cadre of really talented entrepreneurial resources.”

But, she notes, the geographical makeup of the city itself is a hindrance. Albuquerque is a mid-sized city in terms of population (just under a million residents), but it is enormous in terms of land area. As a result, the 8-10 startup companies that STC.UNM spins off every year are, according to Kuuttila, “scattering throughout the city.” And Albuquerque’s two major federal research labs, Los Alamos and Sandia, have historically been unable to leverage their considerable intellectual resources into economic benefit for the region, operating quite separately from the city and its people.

The lack of an innovation district—a place where the city’s entrepreneurs, researchers, students, startups, investors and others can come together and interact—is an issue Kuuttila and STC.UNM recognized as a major barrier to a healthy ecosystem. As a result, they spearheaded an initiative called Innovate ABQ, in which a section of downtown Albuquerque will be built and geared toward “creating space where these collisions can occur.” In short, they seek to create a new keystone institution.

The initiative is getting across-the-board support. UNM president, Bob Frank, has expressed the need for Albuquerque to create “a critical, nurturing environment to generate opportunities.” And one of Albuquerque serial entrepreneurs, Stuart Rose, noted the need for an “ecosystem” where innovators can experiment, fail, and develop into something new, different, and better. He added that “in the rainforest, things die and decay, the DNA mixes and new life forms are created.”

The city government has committed $1 million to building the site, and the state of New Mexico is funneling funds from oil revenues into the project through its State Investment Council program.

Even architects and city planners are looking to buck traditional ways of thinking in favor of cultivating “collisions.” David Green of the urban design firm, Perkins & Will, wants the Innovate ABQ site to fulfill four main criteria: livability, walkability, accessibility, and sustainability.

However, leaders in Albuquerque realize that building a project is different from building an ecosystem. You have to pay attention to human scale in the design. Culture change happens from the bottom-up, not the top-down. Kuuttila says, “We can’t simply make some strategic investments. We have to resist the idea of central planning. What we have to do is coordinate with each other and continuously talk to each other about what we’re doing.”

In short, you don’t build a “Rainforest in the Desert” merely by planting trees. You do it by nurturing new weeds sprouting up.

Kuuttila finds great joy in being a keystone in Albuquerque. She remarks passionately, “I’ve always loved the idea of being a keystone. I really get a lot of satisfaction from helping people make connections that help them further their own business and technology interests.”

She adds, “To watch people making connections—sometimes it was a startup to a startup, sometimes it was an investor hearing a pitch, and sometimes it’s a student getting a job. I really like that.”

Victor W. Hwang is an entrepreneur, investor, and ecosystem builder in Silicon Valley at T2 Venture Creation. He is primary co-author of The Rainforest: The Secret to Building the Next Silicon Valley.

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