By Henry Doss, Forbes, MAR 21, 2016
Let us learn to dream, gentlemen. -Friedrich August Kekule
So are science, and technology, and entrepreneurialism, and venture capital, and risk, and vision, and social good, and. . . well, just about every ingredient you need for a decidedly innovative and human-centered culture. In fact, it’s not at all far-fetched to think of this small city, nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, as an emerging Silicon Valley. Or, quite possibly, the city is creating a new model of how innovation cultures can operate in the 21st century.
Nowhere is this emergent innovation and vision more apparent than atThe Collider, Asheville’s newly opened research, commercialization and meeting space dedicated to bringing together science, innovation and business to solve climate challenges. More than a meeting space, more than an incubator or accelerator, The Collider is really an idea made manifest, a physical place and a real and virtual network for “strategic collisions” to occur between business and science. It is an idea that is going to introduce dreams to the world.
We tend to see things like climate change as problems, or as threats or as something to be fixed. But in the time-honored tradition of innovation — that is, innovation as a force for positive change in the world – the community that is emerging around The Collider sees climate change as an opportunity, one that can put this growing network of climate innovators and scientists smack in the middle of a growing $1 trillion dollar industry. It is an opportunity to both establish Asheville’s national reputation for innovation and — more importantly, of course — to simply make the world a better place. It is the latter outcome that will ultimately distinguish The Collider and its many supporters and collaborators from other efforts.
Bill Dean is The Collider CEO, and he’s developed similar programs in Huntsville, Alabama, and in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He sees the facility and its distributed organizational network as being engaged in a climate change “moonshot,” an effort as he says to “to leave the earth a better place.” He wants to mix together knowledge-based entrepreneurs and companies with science and data to create innovative products and services that address climate change adaptation and resilience.
In a way, The Collider is simply serving as a catalyst for a plentiful supply of intellectual capital and other resources already available in Asheville. As Dean says, they are intent on creating a “climate technology ecosystem,” which will leverage the potential of the brain power, big data and science/technology community already in place. “We have the intellectual resources of 400 plus scientists at the National Center for Environmental Information, with a divisional office located right in our downtown; we have the best environmental data in the world — more than 25 petabytes — at our fingertips. And now we have The Collider, which serves as both physical meeting space and as a steward of big dreams. With all that, we have quite a bit of confidence that we are going to achieve great things.”
But, of course, there is always a lot more to an innovation story than simply the sum of available resources. Innovation begins to happen when a multitude of cultural elements begin to interact — trust, risk-tolerance, diversity, a pay-it-forward way of thinking and a host of other critical cultural features. This is where Ashevillle as an emerging innovation ecosystem meets The Collider, a new climate technology ecosystem. And it is this intersection, this “collision of ecosystems,” that promises great things for the future.
Big dreams happen in communities, reaching fulfillment in the hands of human beings who gather together and collaborate on complex, difficult issues. Without a broad, diverse community of active, engaged thinkers; without innovative cultural elements surrounding that community; without like-minded people willing to sacrifice and dream . . . big goals like those of The Collider more often than not die on the vine. This is why it’s so important that something like The Collider and its outsized ambitions be physically located in a place like Asheville, where all of the necessary cultural ingredients for breakthrough innovation are forming and growing every day.
There are lots of big steps from ideas, to dreams, to doing real things in the world. The Collider’s objective of nurturing and supporting entrepreneurial, market-based solutions to climate challenges is particularly complex. They want to build transformative businesses, create risky start ups, and encourage trail and error for solutions that can foster climate adaptation and resiliency. This, in turn, requires a rich mix of public and private, for-profit and non–profit actors to come together in very unique ways, and this is a relatively rare feat.
But, The Collider — and Asheville — are quite possibly sitting on a gold mine of innovation potential, and with just a little bit of luck can anticipate undreamed of success down the road. They have a big vision — accelerating an emerging climate resilient economy. They have a state-of-the-art facility. They have a broad and deep community of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors. And they have the commitment to marry commerce with idealism to foster pragmatic solutions. But most of all they have what may be the single most important ingredient for success — the rapidly developing innovation culture of their home city, Asheville.
Innovation cultures are by nature inclusive, and welcoming and open. The culture itself operates as an invitation for curious, interested entrepreneurs to join in, and Asheville certainly has an “Entrepreneurs Welcome!” sign out. But the best invitation to join The Collider and Asheville in collaborative aspirations came from Mack Pearsall, one of the earliest supporters of the idea of The Collider. “Let the word go forth,” Pearsall said, “to all entrepreneurs and researchers. If you think you have an idea with climate data that you can commercialize, The Collider is open for business. Come here and we’ll make your dream come true.”
That last sentence is so important. Innovation is about dreams, more than anything else. Robert Browning said: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.” The community of Asheville and The Collider seem to know this. They seem to get the idea of risk and dreaming and breaking rules and paying it forward. And this is why grand, ambitious things like The Collider begin to appear — and prosper — in communities like Asheville.
So, watch this city and this organization. Expect big things from them. You probably won’t be disappointed.