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Fueling innovation at local level is discussion topic

A major conference on the future of innovation districts kicked off Wednesday in Buffalo with talks on how best to build and pay for the campuses where scientists, doctors and entrepreneurs mix to spur creative and economic activity.

That innovation increasingly will happen in urban centers, in smaller communities outside the largest and most expensive metro areas and will be supported with local or private financing. And, the United States will remain a global leader in the often disruptive and chaotic process of scientific discovery, said Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, a featured speaker on the conference’s opening day.

“You can democratize innovation,” Katz said at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

About 200 leaders representing research parks from 38 states and 11 countries are expected for the annual Association of University Research Parks conference, which runs through Friday at the Hyatt and on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Local officials on Wednesday were eager to welcome the visitors to Buffalo and to show off progress on the rapidly growing medical campus, which will be in the spotlight during the three-day conference.

“I think people are getting their eyes opened about Buffalo,” Patrick J. Whalen, chief operating officer of the medical campus and a conference organizer, told The Buffalo News.

The conference began Wednesday with strategy sessions on how to raise money for innovation districts, how to market them, how to maximize their economic impact and how to make the right networking connections with community leaders.

Whether an innovation district is built in a sprawling suburban setting, on a reclaimed former industrial site or around a medical center in a city’s downtown core, the managers of every kind of district worry about convincing companies, governments and non-profits to invest in their campuses. But the districts can’t count on federal or state governments to fuel future growth, Katz said.

“It’s really a local play in many ways,” Ellen Hemmerly, executive director of the BWTech Research and Technology Park on the University of Maryland’s Baltimore County campus, said in an interview. “A lot of the investment is coming from the local community.”

Over the past several decades, several major metro areas have dominated high-tech innovation, including Boston-Cambridge in Massachusetts, California’s Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Today, and in the future, Buffalo Niagara and even smaller communities have a chance to find an innovative niche, Katz and other conference attendees said, with astronomically high real-estate prices in Northern California putting a chill on development there.

“Every research park in every area is different. So what you try to understand are best practices and commonalities. And the strengths that Buffalo has, for example, are not going to be the same strengths that we have, nor should they be,” said Robert E. Salonen, director of global business development for the Florida Tech Research Park, at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla., near the Kennedy Space Center.

The conference continues with a full day of sessions on Thursday and tours of the medical campus on Friday.