Government sponsored conferences on “innovation”

With the nebulous and questionable purpose of “raising the profile of the start-up community,”(whatever that is) the mostly public-funded, University of North Carolina-sponsored Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) promotes itself this week with, what else?—a conference.

Conferences provide opportunities for government bureaucrats, nonprofit opportunists and business people to self-promote, announce grand schemes and spend a night or two on-the-town at other people’s expense. But, we are told, organizing conferences is difficult and expensive.

Jim Roberts, executive director of the CIE, says “Bringing together” (company representatives) and “opening doors…to budding businesspeople” is “no easy task.” (Cost of the one-day event: $75-100.) And, according to a Wilmington StarNews story ( by Wayne Faulkner, Mr. Roberts has another “accomplishment.” He recruited an out-of-town conference director, Hugh Forrest, to speak. Forrest’s talk will be the “highlight” of the CIE conference in Wilmington.

Most of this article consisted of insider-talk about goals, events and people that mean nothing to the public at large. Yet, the assumptions expressed imply that this is important government work—of some undisclosed value collectively to State taxpayers.

Roberts has an office building, a staff and a $250,000 annual budget (his salary is not revealed). The StarNews reporter helps Roberts celebrate “milestones.” One was asking Mr. Forrest to speak (along with 50 others) at the conference. In addition:

“Twenty-one companies now have their offices in CIE” (the StarNews print edition featured three possibly college-age people identified as “President,” “founder” and “coach”; some dressed in shorts and sandals, all seated at computers. The austere setting included an empty wooden Adirondack chair, bumper-stickers on the wall and a large picture of a tropical beach. This didn’t look like a businesslike environment. It appeared to be a casual, college chit-chat room.)

And Roberts says they have “helped many more companies”—he hosts “one to four events for entrepreneurs per month.”

Further, at yet another gathering in Raleigh this month (a Council for Entrepreneurial Development Tech Conference), two start-up company representatives coached in Wilmington at the CIE have been chosen to make presentations. This is touted as “Another milestone” for Roberts.

One of the chosen few includes the “award-winning… NextGlass…emblematic of the success of start-ups in Wilmington.” These modern pioneers excel in “developing an app that delivers wine and beer recommendations.”

Raleigh-Durham, watch out! Wilmington could become the next Research Triangle business park with these innovations.

Mr. Roberts expressed pride at “trying to make things happen.” He hopes to “achieve the second-best place for start-ups in North Carolina.” To him, being the “second-best city…is an acceptable goal” (and, predictably, “expanding the event space at the center”).

Being second in a concrete achievement isn’t bad. But even being first is not good for a government-subsidized enterprise with an unclear mission attempting another project best left to individual initiatives: people operating in real business environments of the private sector where promoting “connections” and conferences do not define success.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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