SBA’s Mills leads a listening tour on entrepreneurship

In January, the Obama administration joined with the Case Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation to launch its Startup America Partnership, an initiative designed to put a spotlight on entrepreneurship and innovation at the small-business level. Related to the partnership, I was invited to Boston to participate in the SBA’s Reducing Barriers roundtable led by Karen Mills, head of the U.S. Small Business Administration. For its part, SBA has organized an eight-city “listening” tour designed to convene players in the entrepreneurship ecosystem to learn what barriers – capital, regulatory, support and others – are getting in the way of the job- and innovation-creating power that small businesses are known to deliver.
Mills brought to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge a high-powered assemblage that included, among others: Department of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, Economic Development Administration Assistant Secretary for Commerce and Administration John Fernandez, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs Administrator Cass Sunstein, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. The format of the three-hour session included an hour or more of panel discussion, facilitated by Mills, in which each agency head discussed what they were doing to reduce barriers to entrepreneurship.Chu announced a new program designed to reduce the cost to license new technologies from national labs. Fernandez referenced his efforts in implementing the Regional Innovation Clusters programs that he credited Mills for helping catalyze across multiple federal agencies. FDA’s Hamburg discussed her efforts to speed the FDA’s approval process without compromising safety. And Sunstein made remarks on his role to reduce the regulatory burden of federal agencies.

Barriers to growthFollowing the panel session, Mills and others convened small group meetings in which attendees got a chance to speak directly to agency officials about barriers to growth. I was fortunate to be in a room with some 20 others facilitated by Mills and Sunstein and got to hear various stakeholders reflect on what the government could do better.I posed a question about the capital gap that exists in low- and moderate-income communities for companies that are not high-growth venture capital candidates (good but not great growth prospects) but are also not large enough to support later-stage mezzanine capital or other forms of debt. Mills concurred that this gap was one the SBA and other agencies are looking at.The announcement of Startup America, led by two entrepreneurship-oriented foundations, has strong and evident support from multiple federal agencies, in support of the Obama administration’s clear and unequivocal support of small businesses.Most of the partnership’s announcements delivered little in the way of incremental new funding, whether from public or private sources. That said, Mills announced intent to create two $1 billion venture capital pools certainly will be a significant event, provided it gets authorized and instantiated into the 2012 budget.With the partnership’s focus on small business, the SBA has been central to the public sector piece of the public-private initiative. With her background in venture capital, Mills has always been well attuned to the issues and needs of small businesses, whether those of the Main Street variety or the “gazelles” – high-growth businesses powered by venture capital. The Reducing Barriers road show had Mills at the center as convener and facilitator. The event and engagement appear to reflect a genuine effort to listen to entrepreneurs struggling in a down economy, with limited capital and challenged by the burden of often unnecessary and/or excessive federal regulations and reporting.The SBA’s ability to bring the key agency leads to each of these venues is a testament to Mills’ influence and to this administration’s clear commitment to small business. Given its proven job- and innovation-creating capacity, it’s no wonder.

Michael Gurau, president of Clear Innovation Partners, can be reached at