ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The distance from CEO Andy Lim’s desk to the lobby at Lavu world headquarters in Downtown Albuquerque is half a city block, so he jumps on one of the company’s kick scooters to speed up the trip.
He streaks past the indoor basketball hoop where Lavu’s 40 employees can blow off steam. He passes the kitchen with the free coffee, soft drinks and munchies. The company also provides free lunch. These have become the sort of perks that are standard at software companies.
Programmers, executives, sales and customer support people all favor T-shirts and jeans. Lavu has no offices, just desks scattered along the half-city block of third-floor office space at Central and First Street.
Lim founded Lavu four years ago to offer cloud-based iPad point-of-sale systems to the restaurant industry. Today Lavu has 4,000 customers in 29 countries and is planning a push into new markets.
Lim is precisely the kind of entrepreneur city government and the University of New Mexico have in mind when they talk about transforming Albuquerque’s economy through innovation districts, innovation academies and creativity-nurturing environments they call rainforests.
When the city and UNM develop property they own at Broadway and Central and populate it with students, investors and inventors, they want people like Lim to be there.
Ken Jacobson, chief strategy officer for ClosedWon, works one floor below Lavu. ClosedWon uses software to help businesses, including Fortune 50 companies, improve their sales operations. Jacobson has been involved with startups and with local economic development efforts for years. He, too, is the kind of entrepreneur you’d like to see in the innovation district.
Will they be there? It’s hard to say. They don’t sound enthusiastic about it, and they have a lot of pressing issues that an innovation district is probably not designed to address. Still, it’s early in the game.
UNM sees places like Silicon Valley as more than hothouses of technology, said Joseph Cecchi, dean of the engineering school. “It’s a very rich culture.” UNM wants to create a culture, too, one where ideas are generated in all disciplines, from fine arts to business management.
“Technology is about invention,” Cecchi said. “Innovation is about making an impact.”
Lim knows little about the proposed district, but he sees value in bringing people together. “You need a place to collaborate, where people meet and spark ideas.” A lot of Downtown entrepreneurs find one another at coffee shops and networking groups today, he said.
Jacobson says that in one form or another over the years, from business incubators to Sandia Labs’ Technology Ventures Corp., the hope has been that if someone creates a space for investors and innovators, “magic will happen. I don’t believe in that too much anymore.” He says it’s the long, hard slog of an individual company executing a business plan that makes the magic.
“Being an entrepreneur is about solving problems, helping people, having a passion for what you’re doing,” Lim said. “You can get a business license and be a CEO in 20 minutes. You can’t fake passion.”
“I can’t say I’m completely cynical, but don’t just bring a structure together,” Jacobson said. “You have to have a plan. ‘Build it and they will come’ feels a little ungrounded to me.”
If Lavu and ClosedWon are ever to become customers for an innovation district, here are some of their needs.
Lim says he’d like to see citywide Wi-Fi, faster Internet connections and a place to plug in his electric car. Lavu’s growth plans will require new financing and a different kind of talent – not as much technical help and more business and marketing talent. Lim says technical talent is abundant in Albuquerque. “We compete against Silicon Valley for talent just fine,” he said.
High-level business talent is harder to find. If there is a chance to find talent at an innovation district, Lim is interested.
ClosedWon finds good computing talent locally as well. The problem is that the talent has learned on systems at the state’s schools that are years out of date. Getting people already familiar with cloud computing is a special problem. Jacobson uses state job-training funds to modernize their skills, but he’d rather get students who are ready to go.
The most important skill of all is the ability to think critically and solve a customer’s problem, Jacobson said. He’d like to find that sort of talent at an innovation district.
What Jacobson really needs is better market research. An innovation district would be much more interesting to ClosedWon if it had people who could identify new markets, describe their needs, quantify their sizes, and evaluate market segments and niches.
Local would-be entrepreneurs need to dream bigger when it comes to markets, Lim said. He held up his smartphone and said, “You have access to the whole world through this.” To too many locals, success looks like finding a few hundred buyers in a four-county area.
Jacobson worries local innovation programs get caught up in what he calls “the better mousetrap fallacy,” the idea that only some breakthrough technology from UNM or a national laboratory has commercial promise.
“There are a lot of opportunities that are not on the bleeding edge” of technology, Jacobson said. “It seems like people are looking for the next cool thing rather than finding an established market they can disrupt.”