The new Innovate ABQ building in the Albuquerque Innovation District provides a one-stop shop for meeting planners to connect with local thought leaders in high-tech industries and some of the most advanced scientific research in the country.
People who plan conferences in technology and other advanced industry sectors don’t always immediately think of Albuquerque as a host destination for their events. The city is changing that perception by promoting the serious amount of high-tech brainpower in the region. Or, more specifically, they’re making it easier for meeting planners and decision-makers to connect with it.
New Mexico has more PhDs per capita than any other state in the country. It’s also home to three federal government-funded research facilities: Sandia National Laboratories and Air Force Research Laboratory in Albuquerque, and Los Alamos National Laboratory just 60 miles north.
Those research labs are also active in the private sector where they develop innovations for many different types of industries. TriLumina, for example, a spin-off from Sandia Labs, produces Lidar laser technology used in autonomous vehicles.
The challenge in the past for planners, however, was getting face-to-face meetings with the labs and the rest of the innovation economy, because everyone was spread out around the city and state. It’s also not always easy to just walk into a government R&D lab, either. If planners wanted to reach out for speakers, sponsors, exhibitors, potential research and business development opportunities, etc., that presented a lot of logistics and red tape to navigate.
Things are different now. This year, the three laboratories and numerous local high-tech companies, such as Emera and General Atomic, opened offices in the new $35 million Innovate ABQ complex. It’s located in Albuquerque’s blossoming 7-acre innovation district connecting downtown and the University of New Mexico (UNM).
The university lead the initiative to develop Innovate ABQ, including the Lobo Rainforest building housing the UNM Innovation Academy. “Rainforest” alludes to the fertile wellspring of interconnected nurturing systems inherent in both a tropical jungle and a thriving startup economy. Inside the building’s fluid, open-design spaces, faculty and students collaborate with outside organizations to commercialize university research and development projects.
Innovate ABQ, therefore, is a high-density community of government labs, academic research, and the private tech industry clustered together in close proximity just a few blocks from the Albuquerque Convention Center.
“New Mexico has always been at the forefront of some of the most important and innovative scientific breakthroughs in our country’s history,” said Annemarie Henton, VP of business development and marketing at Albuquerque Economic Development. “In the past though, our research labs had not spent a lot of time coming outside their walls and into the community to engage closely with the local startup and business community. That’s been the biggest change here in the last two years.”
Tania Armenta, president and CEO of Visit Albuquerque, says that innovation ecosystem — comprised of key industry and academic thought leaders surrounding the convention center district — is a unique differentiator and significant value proposition for bringing meetings to the city.
“Our government, business community, and higher education institutions are basically designing our city to be a collision space for new ideas,” she said. “At Visit Albuquerque, we really see ourselves as brokers of innovation for meeting and event planners.”
Kristin McGrath, VP of sales at Visit Albuquerque, adds that she now emphasizes Albuquerque’s innovation economy to planners, and how her organization provides access to it, as much as she does the hotels and convention center.
“Meeting planners always need to know about logistics and capacity, of course, but in that same conversation we’re also talking about the intellectual capital they can tap into in Albuquerque,” McGrath explained. “And that’s not secondary to everything else. We promote our expertise in advanced industries on the same playing field as all of our infrastructure.”
INNOVATE ABQ KNOWLEDGE HUB
Robert DelCampo, executive director of the UNM Innovation Academy, says that Innovate ABQ helps break down the traditional barriers of a university campus. By bringing the school into the heart of the city, the faculty and students can connect more easily with the global business community — including visiting corporate and association decision-makers.
“This is really a first, because sure, there are many other university-operated buildings in urban centers, but bringing in multiple national labs is unprecedented,” said DelCampo. “The building was also designed so that people naturally gather in shared work areas and meeting spaces with scientists, administrators, faculty, and students working together in an organic environment.”
Presently, Innovate ABQ is the anchor hub of the Albuquerque innovation district, with a growing array of startups and creative businesses moving into the surrounding area.
For example, across the street from Innovate ABQ, the FatPipe ABQ coworking space hosts free events open for the public and visitors, such as pitch competitions with the 1 Million Cups organization. The overarching goal for the district, according to John Freisinger, executive director of Innovate ABQ, is to bring as many new and different people together as possible to share new ideas around innovation.
“We’re trying to expand the innovation economy throughout Albuquerque, and make it available to everyone, which is an extraordinary value for conference planners who want to work with our community,” Freisinger explained. “It’s a very vibrant economy now, but with a little more intentionality behind it, we can be more encompassing for more burqueños (locals) and visitors.”
Looking ahead, there’s also a number of buildings adjacent to Innovate ABQ that are presently under construction or in development. Together, they will eventually form an urban ecosystem designed for a convergence of knowledge sharing and research commercialization, scheduled for completion in 2024.
“We’re creating a front door to the innovation economy in Albuquerque,” Freisinger said. “In fact, we’re creating multiple doors because each person is comfortable connecting with our industry innovators, faculty, and students in different ways.”
Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) is another big part of the process to expand innovation across the city. It was the first community college in the country to launch a coding boot camp, and the first to be part of Facebook’s new Community Boost program, which helps community colleges develop new curriculums in digital media and marketing.
“Not every company needs a computer scientist with a university degree, but every company needs programmers,” said Debbie Johnson, head of CNM’s office of education, entrepreneurship and economic development.
CNM recently opened FUSE Makerspace in Innovate ABQ, next to the Lobo Rainforest building, where visiting conference groups can explore new technologies such as 3D printing. FUSE is also home to Build with Robots, which resembles a sharing economy platform for robots, and ABQID, a community-funded accelerator program.
THE FUTURE OF ENTREPRENEURIAL INNOVATION
Universities and colleges worldwide are striving to play a greater role in local economic development by supporting graduates launching startups in advanced industries. Innovate ABQ was designed as an incubator to accelerate that strategy in Albuquerque, but at the same time, it’s also a platform to give visiting corporations and associations a closer look at the workforce and technology of tomorrow.
For example, Albuquerque startup OptiPulse Inc. is developing ultrafast wireless internet for a fraction of today’s costs. According to the Albuquerque Journal, “The company, which launched in 2015, has developed novel optics technology that uses proprietary, high-power laser chips to beam wireless data across a new type of network in urban and rural areas at 10 gigabytes per second. That would allow for direct download delivery to homes and businesses at 1 GBPS, or about 100-fold faster than most current speeds.”
OptiPulse founder John Joseph, a former Sandia Labs scientist, attended both UNM and CNM, and the two schools are now helping fund the company’s growth, along with a local telecommunications company.
Lisa Kuuttila, CEO and chief economic development officer at UNM, says the university has supported more than 120 new student-led startups in the last 12 years, and 65 percent are still in business. That’s considerably higher than the 50 percent success rate for university-supported startups nationwide, and exponentially higher than the less than 10 percent success rate of startups outside academia.
“In the last three years, the university has made a big effort to increase student entrepreneurship, and we now have about 30 student-led companies that have come out of our Innovation Academy,” said Kuuttila.
She adds that Visit Albuquerque consistently works with UNM to help bring tech conferences to Albuquerque that can benefit students, the community at large, and conference organizers. Kuuttila says the city has long embraced a collaborative mindset, more than others, because the state’s relatively small population is highly educated and entrepreneurial, comparatively with the rest of the country. But at the same time, the local innovation economy has been evolving in silos.
Now, there’s a concerted effort across the public and private sectors to steer everyone in the same direction with a shared purpose, mission, and meeting space.
“So we have all these people who work well together, and the pieces are all here to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Kuuttila. “People were starting companies before but they didn’t feel they had a sense of community because they were spread all over the city.”
Moving forward, Visit Albuquerque will continue to expand its messaging about how the city is evolving as a regional hub of high-tech expertise, and how meeting and event planners can leverage that.
“We see the concentration and density of the innovation economy that is emerging out of downtown as a strong asset that sets Albuquerque apart from other cities of its kind,” said Armenta.
“The direct access to new ideas and new ways of thinking not only benefit the Albuquerque community, but also give the city a strong advantage for meeting planners looking to access the talent here in order to infuse their event with content that delves beyond the norm,” she continued. “It’s truly exciting to see this transformation taking place, and we can’t wait to see how this focus on technology, entrepreneurialism, and innovation continues to evolve.”