CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As we start a new year, it is a good time to reflect on the progress that has been made and where our opportunities may lie. On behalf of TechConnect West Virginia and all our partners, I am pleased to report that during 2013 West Virginia continued to make good progress toward a broader, more robust innovation economy.
Even better, several important signs point to increased interest and opportunities that will drive innovation-based economic development. Among the positive trends to watch in 2014 are:
1. Growing interest in entrepreneurship. Across the state business plan competitions are attracting record-setting numbers of applications. Groups are exploring ways to bring entrepreneurship education into the K-12 system, and Vision Shared's Entrepreneur Cafés are springing up in towns and cities. Create West Virginia is also shining a bright light on entrepreneurs who are changing the future of the state. Meanwhile, federally supported programs such as the Third District Accelerator and the Value Cluster Chain Initiative provide yet another avenue of support for would-be entrepreneurs. This trend is here to stay.
2. Improved access to capital. Like many states, West Virginia struggles with a dearth of funds available for startups and expansion of existing businesses. Three new programs are helping to mitigate this deficiency. The West Virginia Capital Access Program, designed to help startups and small businesses expand and create jobs, is providing a tremendous boost to the economy. The West Virginia Growth Investment LLC is a private fund backed by local investors who will provide financing for new small businesses, product innovation and expansion of existing businesses. Appalachian Community Capital was created by the Appalachian Regional Commission and 12 partner community development financial institutions to improve access to capital for entrepreneurs in the Appalachian region.
3. Increasing crowdsourcing. Provisions of the 2012 JOBS Act haven taken effect, democratizing access to capital by letting startups and small businesses raise up to $1 million annually from many small-dollar investors through web-based platforms. West Virginia has seen increased use of crowdsourcing in the last year or two, including to produce "Hollow," the documentary about McDowell County, and to fund events hosted by the Charleston Area Alliance.
4. Heightened campus activity. From the WVU College of Law Entrepreneurship and Innovation Law Clinic to the EDA University Center program led by Marshall and Concord universities, higher education is stepping up its game in innovation, technology transfer, and commercialization. West Liberty University has made entrepreneurship a major emphasis on its campus. The Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research is focused on advancing economic development through commercialization of scientific discoveries. The private sector is stepping in, too, as seen in the BrickStreet Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at WVU.
5. New high-tech tools. Three-dimensional printing is ushering in what many call the "Third Industrial Revolution." Marshall University's Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) has several 3-D printers available to businesses and entrepreneurs and is a leader in the nation's first National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. RCBI also offers rapid prototyping, which shortens the time and reduces the cost of product development. And, today's web-based marketing and sales offer small businesses new avenues to reach customers, unhindered by geography.