Innovation, which comes in many forms, is key to the growth of the economy, both locally and nationally, speakers said at Wednesday’s Innovation Napa Valley conference.
Hosted by the Napa Chamber of Commerce, the one-day event at the former Copia theater included a variety of speakers from different industries, including education, government, small business, technology, finance and economics.
As the recovery from the recession continues, some companies are finding it more economical to outsource selected business functions, said Robert Eyler, economics professor at Sonoma State University. Therefore, self-employed workers and smaller businesses in Napa County are where the growth will be found, he said.
Eyler challenged the audience to consider what Napa County is missing that may spur new economic growth. Is commercial space being used efficiently? What industries can be added to the area? Can entrepreneurs who want to start businesses in Napa County be identified? Can venture capital be brought to the area?
Innovation also relies on widening economic networks, experts said.
“Look beyond borders of Napa County” to identify and nurture entrepreneurs that can in turn benefit the county, said Bob Linscheid, managing director of the Chico Economic Planning Corporation.
Develop regional partners, reach out to higher education institutions, partner with other regional innovation efforts to develop a culture for innovation acceleration, Linscheid said.
Innovators can also be found within the area, said Linscheid, who reported 1,000 patents registered to Napa County residents,
Fledgling businesses need extra attention, which is the focus of Napa’s new food, wine and technology business incubator, Trellis Napa Valley.
Local business owners Jason Luros and Mary Luros explained that Trellis will assist with the start-up and growth of entrepreneurial businesses in Napa.
Located in the former Japan Air Lines building at the airport industrial area, the business incubator will offer mentoring and coaching, a resource network, connections to industry professionals, access to capital and partnerships with educational resources including universities. The facility will host up to 18 companies, the pair said.
“Incubators are economic development engines,” said Carol Lauffer, a consultant working on the Trellis business plan. “Their growth benefits Napa.”
Growth also depends on an educated workforce. But only 27 percent of Californians are graduating from college when the majority of jobs require at least an AA degree, according to Chuck McMinn, president of the nonprofit NapaLearns.
Innovation in technology can build success in the classroom and ultimately in the workforce, he said. McMinn discussed a number of digital literacy programs the nonprofit has backed, including providing iPads in elementary schools and students using their own smartphones during class time.
“Education is our responsibility as a community,” McMinn said. “View education as an investment.”
Sherwood Neiss, principal of Crowdfund Capital Advisors, called for Napans to work together to help fund “people we know and ideas we believe in.”
Neiss and his partners are promoting an exemption under securities laws that allow entrepreneurs to raise up to $1 million from their own personal networks. The concept is called Crowdfund Investing, or crowdfunding, and it relies on many investors making modest investments to help fund and grow a business.
“Crowdfunding can fill the gap between donation-based giving and equity funding,” he said. “It’s something that will change the way the world operates.”