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Add Cleantech Innovation Consortiums to America COMPETES

The reauthorization of America COMPETES--America’s signature innovation law--now in the Senate contains a few innovations in its own text, such as a regional industry cluster program.

Such a program--informed by an important Metro Program paper and similar to the one inserted into the House's recently passed America COMPETES reauthorization bill--represents an important recognition that technological innovation in 2010 entails much more than annually pouring R&D money into the system and waiting for job-creating high-growth companies to spin magically out. Specifically, inclusion of the cluster program in the Senate's draft bill stands out as one more encouraging acknowledgement that innovation, like so much other economic activity, is regional and local and mediated by intricate and dynamic webs of firms, suppliers, support organizations, and specialized institutions. Seeing if the federal government can foster these organic local networks is smart and overdue good policy.

Yet there is another small acknowledgement of how innovation works that needs inclusion in the Senate reauthorization.

Currently embedded in an amendment that is being introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), this addition to America COMPETES follows up on another MPP paper as well as a recent collaboration with the Breakthrough Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and calls for the launch of a $30 million a year, three-year pilot program to test out the concept of launching a network of Regional Clean Technology Innovation Consortiums. Similar in spirit to the regional Energy Discovery Innovation Institutes envisioned in the earlier Metro Program paper, Warner's consortiums initiative would seek to accelerate the conversion into commercialization of university, corporate, and national lab research by funding a number of powerful regional collaborations in translational research and technology deployment.

Like the Department of Energy's Energy Innovation Hubs program, the amendment’s proposed consortiums would seek to draw together and orient to the marketplace partnerships among the nation's world-class universities and corporate and national labs. Unlike the hubs effort, and more like the multi-agency E-RIC project, the consortia pilot would have a strong regional cast and would seek explicitly to connect clean energy translational research to the bolstering of regional clean energy innovation clusters and metropolitan economic development.

In that way, Warner and Wyden’s modest amendment could have a transformative effect.

For less than $100 million, the two senators’ consortiums program would begin the work of boosting the scale and scope of the nation's dozens of nascent regional clean energy innovation and commercialization partnerships and so unleashing a new burst of creativity in U.S. metros.

Given that America COMPETES is all about innovation, the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee should embrace Sen. Warner and Sen. Wyden’s creative amendment as mark-up begins this Thursday.