Growing an innovation rainforest in New Mexico - Albuquerque Journal

Growing an innovation rainforest in New Mexico

Lisa J. Kuuttila

New Mexico is in an exciting position when it comes to new business innovation, and there’s an opportunity and a need for everyone in the state to be involved.

Innovation enables new ideas to be transformed into practical products, and it’s spawned by an environment that values those ideas, connects people with relevant skills, and enables products to be tested, refined, and sold.

Ten years ago, I read a new book called “The Rainforest” by Victor W. Hwang, in which he explores how entrepreneurial innovation is fostered. He draws a key distinction between a planted field that yields its intended crops and a rainforest that enables various species to interact and create new byproducts not previously imagined. Innovation at scale, he says, requires rainforests.

Five years ago, in that spirit, the University of New Mexico inaugurated the Lobo Rainforest building near downtown Albuquerque, which is specifically designed to foster the ideas, interactions, and connections needed for new business innovation.

Those five years have put Albuquerque, the university, and the state in a position where new business innovation can expand dramatically in an ever-widening and all-inclusive rainforest.

Lobo Rainforest was designed from the outset to create intriguing interactions, and those interactions are now expanding exponentially to benefit the entire state. The building is located between downtown and the university in order to tighten that connection. It includes student housing in order to connect students with other aspiring entrepreneurs. It combines expertise at the university with that of other renowned institutions like Sandia National Laboratories.

Now UNM Rainforest Innovations and InnovateABQ, the 7-acre innovation district anchored by Lobo Rainforest, are engaged in involving the full spectrum of entrepreneurship in New Mexico. We recently announced plans to develop, at a site adjacent to Lobo Rainforest, a new facility called The Jungle that will serve as a central gathering space where people with a wide variety of interests can work on new projects, form connections within the local entrepreneurial community, support local talent performing at the event space, and meet friends at the food hall or rooftop bar.

The Jungle has been conceived by Vince Kadlubek, co-founder of the creative development group Spatial Activations and co-founder and former CEO of Meow Wolf.

With a grant from the federal Economic Development Administration, UNM Rainforest Innovations is now helping break down barriers and generate opportunities through entrepreneurship in historically underserved communities in New Mexico with a primary focus on coal-impacted tribal communities. Through a partnership with Right to Start, the national nonprofit founded and led by Victor Hwang that champions entrepreneurship as a civic priority, we are working to identify barriers to entrepreneurship across the state and explore ways of removing them.

The next step in growing the rainforest, and fostering new business innovation through it, is to involve the public more fully in its evolution. It literally will take everyone.

Entrepreneurs and aspiring ones can take advantage of existing support services in the state. A great entry point is through the NM Rainforest EDA University Center office hours which are held weekly on various days and times and offer access to training programs and a supportive network.

Those who wish to champion entrepreneurship can become involved with Right to Start, which has an advocate in New Mexico, Edgar Solis, a local entrepreneur. He is talking with entrepreneurs about the barriers they face and raising awareness of those barriers with civic leaders. It’s vital because young businesses create nearly all job growth in America, and those new businesses benefit the entire community, as they typically rely on local suppliers and talents.

Everyone in New Mexico can support entrepreneurs in their communities. When a new store opens in your neighborhood, check it out. If you like what it has to offer, tell your friends. Every new business depends on customers, so the public will determine the business’ success.

There is a rainforest growing in New Mexico. Together we can see that it prospers and that it creates economic opportunity through entrepreneurship in every community in the state.

The author is CEO and chief economic development officer of UNM Rainforest Innovations, the University of New Mexico’s technology transfer and economic development organization.

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