Our View: Innovation District notching wins

Erie Innovation District CEO Karl Sanchack is correct. Erie cannot simply declare itself an innovation district. The city must first identify, as Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Katz has said, its “distinct innovation base.” “The key is to understand who you are,” Katz told Erie Times-News reporter Jim Martin.

Then the city must move forward to create, as Martin described it, a “neighborhood of companies that do loosely related work.” Innovation districts have been credited with economic turnarounds in other Rust Belt communities, including nearby Akron, Ohio. Sanchack said his goal for Erie is “to change the economy in a basic way.”

The Erie Innovation District was seeded with a $4 million grant from the Erie Community Foundation in partnership with the Susan Hirt Hagen Fund for Transformational Philanthropy and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority. Its key partners are Mercyhurst University, McManis and Monsalve Associates, UPMC and Velocity Network Inc.

Its starting point lies with one of those partners. The Erie Innovation District wants to leverage Mercyhurst’s clout in intelligence studies and stake its claim to a piece of the exploding global demand for cybersecurity. A welcome drumbeat of news signals steady progress toward that goal.

The district hired Sanchack as CEO in September and opened its headquarters in November at 717 State St. in a shared space with the Erie Insurance Innovation Center. Dell signed on to develop software integration for startups. Now comes news that Mercyhurst, Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland State University have joined to create the North Coast Cyber Research and Training Alliance, each tasked with a different element of the field of cybersecurity — risk assessment, computer science, and law and policy, respectively.

This collaboration should establish a credible base for the Erie Innovation District in a field that has shown transformational potential. And soon there might be new companies calling it home. In summer, the Erie Innovation District will partner with Singularity University, a Silicon Valley-based think tank, to host a 10-week boot camp to launch the ideas of 10 entrepreneurs into real businesses.

Progress underway in Erie features many moving parts — blight remediation efforts, large-scale downtown investments, and plans to better connect Erie’s bayfront with the downtown.

The Erie Innovation District, if successful, promises to make those investments and the hopes that ground them rational. Erie cannot wait for a new economic rationale to fall from the sky. It must create one using native resources and assets.

The cybersecurity focus chosen by the Erie Innovation District seems sound. Gannon and Edinboro universities and Penn State Behrend have been mentioned as potential partners in the past. Hopefully, these institutions will be folded into this important effort.