As economic developers identify their regional assets and prioritize particular industries and regions, there is often an opportunity to include foreign-owned early-stage companies or entrepreneurs as targets when they match on characteristics important to the region and have high potential for growth over time. Sample characteristics might include a specific manufacturing capability, expertise in an emerging technology, specialized knowledge or skills among employees, ownership of an innovative process, and similar considerations. To succeed, a region must prepare a strategy that accounts for the unique set of needs of target companies and includes services to address those needs.
Voice of the Practitioner
In fact, for many economic developers, the pursuit of foreign entrepreneurs, start-ups, and early stage firms is worthwhile…
…not so much because these investors create an immediate or substantial economic impact, but rather because they help to internationalize a community, create a talent base, and generally help to foster the conditions under which additional economic impacts may be cultivated in the future. The benefits of attracting foreign investment at a very early stage can be both tangible and obvious, but quite often the benefits are subtler and require a more holistic context in order to be fully appreciated. Articulating the positive economic impacts of early-stage investment is one of the more important efforts and strategies that a successful soft-landing incubator should pursue.
- Identify and assist foreign-born entrepreneurs
- Attract immigrant entrepreneurs
- Provide incubation facilities and acceleration services
Ann Arbor has created an online information guide to “eliminate the challenges you sometimes face when starting a new business in a foreign country.” It includes step-by-step information and links on getting started, getting connected, and accessing talent and business services.
The Forum provides a range of services, including industry-specific immersion programs that provide opportunities for companies “…to scout new technologies, connect with startups, and engage with the Silicon Valley ecosystem.”
Virginia created an international soft landings initiative focused on the regional bioscience cluster in Richmond, Virginia. In 2007, the center implemented the Gateway America initiative that met with 30 Israeli startups in the life sciences field, all of which were at an advanced stage of development and needed assistance in capital acquisition to enter the U.S. market. The center provided services such as business and marketing assistance, connections with hospitals and distributors, clinical-trial access, and financial capital. Furthermore, these engagements and display of dedication resulted in long-term relationships that served as a source for qualified referrals without further extensive outreach. In 2009, Virginia Life Science Investments, LLC acquired the Center, planning to expand the concept.
Maryland Cyber Technology
Maryland has leveraged the strength of its internationally recognized cyber technology sector to establish a reciprocal soft-landing and incubator program with cyber technology firms in the Netherlands. As of December 2017, two Dutch companies have established operations at the cyber incubator, and the program aims to continue growing in coming years.
Automation Alley is a nonprofit technology and manufacturing business association and knowledge center in Troy, Michigan, connecting industry, academia, and government to accelerate innovation across an eight county region. Over the years, they have developed a broad international engagement strategy including trade missions (p. 12), leveraging their knowledge of and relationships with the auto industry. Automation Alley includes an International Business Center offering a wide range of services to foreign companies including soft landing space, site selection assistance, and connections to resources, potential partners, and service providers.
“Attracting Foreign Direct Investment Through ‘Soft Landings’ initiatives,” by Perry Newman, Fall 2013, IEDC Economic Development Journal, p. 4. This document includes a helpful list of eligibility criteria for soft landing programs serving foreign firms developed by the National Business Incubation Association. More broadly, it provides detailed “how-to” information on developing a soft-landing/incubator program for early stage FDI.
EDA Incubator Self-Assessment, 2011. While not focused on soft landings for foreign firms specifically, this online tool, based on research funded by the Economic Development Administration, provides incubator managers with information to enhance program effectiveness and efficiency. This assessment can help incubation practitioners measure program performance on several outcome measures compared with the business incubation practices deemed most important to client success.
“The Next Tech Start-up Hub is Everywhere,” Adam Burns, Site Selection, July 2018. This article provides good background on the state of start-up activity and support efforts at various locations in the U.S. and around the world.