Patience in the Creation of Clusters

Patience really does make perfect. Regional and national policymakers must realize that it takes time and a sustained effort to create innovation clusters. Policymakers who expect initiatives to sprout full-fledged industry clusters overnight will be disappointed and are likely to give up before their efforts actually yield promising results. The existing research shows that the evolution of clusters can take many years, often decades.

The experience of the North Carolina Research Triangle is a very useful case study, providing a hint to the significant investment of time and money that is required to create or strengthen an innovation cluster. In North Carolina, the explicit decision was made in the 1960s to invest heavily in universities and research infrastructure to develop a relatively rural area into a life sciences innovation cluster. Local leaders drew two key national labs, one from the Environmental Protection Agency and one from the National Institutes of Health, to locate near their universities. Today the Research Triangle employs thousands of people, houses more than 170 high-tech and high-paying companies, and has spurred over 1,500 startups since 1970.

So what can policymakers learn from the obvious success of the North Carolina Research Triangle? Namely, that a sustained and large investment of time, money, expertise and leadership is not only desirable but fundamentally necessary to the creation of research clusters across the nation. Once a cluster’s comparative advantages are understood, and all the potential players in a cluster connect in one or several different ways, providing the last necessary ingredients to foster success is an easier proposition economically, but also politically.

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