Editor’s note: Charlotte Beat is a regular feature on Fridays in Local Tech Wire.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Although no one put it quite so bluntly, it was hard to leave Tuesdays’ Innovation Leadership Summit 2006 in Charlotte without the impression that innovation is like obscenity: difficult to define, but everyone knows it when they see it.

The day-long event, sponsored by the N.C. Technology Association (NCTA), was dedicated to exploring innovation in business, technology, public policy, financing, growth, tools and processes.

Here’s a sampling of how the day’s speakers described the elusive quality of innovation:

“Innovation is culture,” said Russ Lea, vice president of research for North Carolina’s university system. “What’s more important — technology in an elementary school or a teacher that allows kids to innovate? Children need to be taught to be creative and to dream.”

“It’s easy to put another computer in a classroom,” agreed Robert McMahan. “But the real enabler is training and flexibility. The ability to assimilate technology is related to the ability to create and stretch. Innovation is organic.” (McMahan is the senior science and technology advisor to N.C. Gov. Mike Easley and an astrophysics professor at UNC Chapel Hill.)

Kathy Brittain White, founder and president of Rural Sourcing, Inc., had a different approach. “Innovation is following your passion, doing what you believe in even when it doesn’t quite fit,” she said. “It’s staying the course when things get really hard and when people tell you that you can’t do it. That just made me more determined.”

The day’s other luncheon speaker, Patricia Pliego Stout, also gained strength from down times, which helped her innovate and grow her company, Alamo Travel Group. She said, “Failure made me stronger. When something goes wrong, it gives you the opportunity to learn how to do it right.”

So how do you create an innovation culture? The panelists discussing ‘How Does Policy Affect Growth?’ had some intriguing insights and observations.

“Social networks are the framework around which entrepreneurial cultures thrive,” McMahan observed. “We in North Carolina don’t recognize — but others tell us — that we are unique in that we can create this network statewide. The framework is here with our 58 community colleges and 16 state universities. They’re at the core of an efficient entrepreneur network. The take is different at each place, but they are all connected.”

Competition among the individual institutions is a thing of the past. Commented Lea, “When it comes to innovation, they are not competing. It’s part of the personal process. The professors are required to be creative — they must produce scholarly works to get tenure and salary increases. If they just want to teach, they’re in the wrong system.”

But tax policies and incentives are also part of the equation. McMahan explained why:

“The global economy is shifting to small businesses, and our challenge is how to encourage the growth of entrepreneurial businesses. But the creation of businesses is not the net producer of new jobs — it’s expansion of them, like when a company expands from 10 to 20 employees or 20 to 40.

“But to expand, they have to be created to begin with. The biggest problem is not enough early stage capital. A venture capital fund can only serve 10 to 20 firms annually. It’s better to have a suite of policies and incentives to encourage their creation.

Lea specifically criticized the state’s capital gains tax. “You’re destroying the innovation and entrepreneurial juices with it,” he said. “It’s totally stifling the ability of people to bring their expertise to small business ventures.”

McMahan challenged Charlotte’s banking community to come up with a solution to the lack of early stage capital. “You’re sitting on more money here than any other city in the U.S. except for New York,” he said. “I’m throwing down the gauntlet — where is the innovation in finding early stage funding? The banking industry needs to engage the issue and create pools of capital that can be leveraged by small businesses. It could be a model for other cities. Charlotte has a unique opportunity to lead.”

Lea joined in, “Banks are conservative by nature,” he observed. “”Culturally, they’re going to have to put something at risk. The question is: can they do that?”

Jim Roberts, executive director of the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council, has gone about raising early capital in another way — by educating high net worth individuals. “My job is building a social entrepreneurial network in Asheville and putting an infrastructure in place to allow people to succeed,” he said.

When Roberts arrived in Asheville in 2002, angel investors hadn’t put any money into local start-ups; last year, they invested $4.35 million — “most of it in $25,000 checks.”
Other sponsors of the summit were the BIG Council, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce’s IT Charlotte Council, the Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council and Charlotte WISE (Women in Information Science and Engineering). More than 300 people attended.

Bioinformatics Education Forum

A Regional Bioinformatics/Biotech Forum on Education will be held Thursday, June 15, at the Ben Craig Center from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Featured speakers will be Dr. Larry Mays, director of the Center for Bioinformatics at UNC Charlotte and Dr. David Brigham, director of the BioNetwork BioEd Center at Gaston College. It’s sponsored by the Centralina Economic Development Commission’s Bioinformatics Network Subcommittee on Education. Cost is $25. Reservations/info: cedc@centrlaine.org or 704.688.6502.

New CRI Office

UNC Charlotte’s Charlotte Research Institute has opened an office adjacent to the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. This effort will strengthen ties between the university and the $1-billion biotech center, which is being built on the former Pillowtex plant site by David Murdock, owner of Dole Food Co.

New Hire at DSI

Matthews-based Decision Support Inc, has hired Susan Whittemore as program administrator for its electronic poll book line of business. Electronic Voter Identification (EViD), is a patent pending set of processes and technology that makes the voter check-in process easier, more reliable and more consistent. Decision Support is an innovator in business intelligence, data integration, reporting and enterprise information technology services.