Michele Skelding, photo by John Davidson

Michele Skelding, photo by John Davidson

Q.  In your role as Senior Vice President Global Technology and Innovation what are the goals you wish to accomplish?

MS: I work on behalf of Austin’s Economic Development Corporation and Opportunity Austin with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. I lead the organization’s vision for Austin to be a top global region for technology and health care innovation, company formation and expansion, in addition to increasing access to venture capital, private equity and attracting top talent.

In this role, my primary function is to provide leadership to cultivate emerging and strategic economic dynamism in the Greater Austin region. This focus on next generation technology and innovation trends aim to continue to seed and drive the long-tail of Austin’s sustainable and prosperous economic growth.

Q.  What are the biggest challenges you think Austin faces right now? How is the Chamber working to overcome them?

MS: Over the past 15 years, Austin has seen many highs and lows. Austin in the late ’90’s was living large. The technology industry was at its peak, driving a booming economy throughout Central Texas. A few years later, that boom turned bust for the U.S., and Austin’s economy took one of the most profound hits.

To combat our economic pains, business and community leaders in Austin created a public-private initiative with the goal of building and diversifying our economy. Opportunity Austin, has since been the driving force behind notable improvement in job, wage, salary, and high-tech growth among the nation’s 200 largest metro areas and benchmark communities. We have not just survived, but thrived despite the 2009 economic crash and resulting recession.

Today, Austin continues to have several foundational advantages: a central location, favorable tax climate and most importantly one of the most highly-educated workforces and incredible talent pipelines in the country. On top of that, Austin is continually recognized and branded as a place for innovation, growth and lifestyle. Entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial spirit are powering so much of what makes Austin’s current economy so exciting.

Q. So how do we extend our current success for the next decade?

MS: A large part of our success now and in the future will depend on our curation and support of our rich culture of music, creativity and our innovative spirit of collaboration. Nurturing the “Soul of Austin” must be embedded in every aspect of our growth and development and how we build the future of the city we love.

Tactically, one of the greatest opportunities Austin has, is the creation of a new blueprint for Austin to support the next-gen, innovation-based economy. We can optimize our growth by leveraging our strength in Tech with the opportunity to revolutionize healthcare. This convergence of Health and Tech by advancing innovation from discovery to outcomes and improving health in our community, can act as a prolific job creator and as a model for the nation if we get it right.

At the heart of our economic growth strategy is the opening of the Dell Medical School and Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas – Austin (UT), and the Central Health Brackenridge Campus redevelopment.

Q. What is Austin’s life sciences industry like right now?

MS: Austin is home to best-in-class research facilities and boasts one of the most educated populations in the U.S. The dynamic, creative and entrepreneurial environment is fueled by the availability of funding, research collaboration, clinical trials, and skilled talent. Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, welcomes its first class in 2016, transforming the local economy as dramatically as the semiconductor and dot.com industries did in previous decades.

Through a mix of strategic relocations and continued support for our existing industry, Austin’s life sciences cluster has evolved into a well-rounded representation of the industry as a whole. Over 200 life sciences companies in the region, and a workforce of nearly 12,300 is focused on the highest growth segments and research areas in the industry, including the specialties of biologics, medical devices, diagnostics, pharmaceutical, contract research, and others. We’re in good company: more than 3,700 companies with 93,800 workers make the State of Texas one of the leading biotech states in the country.

Austin’s Life Sciences Industry
•Medical device/diagnostics (33%)
•Biologics/biotech (12%)
•Contract Research Organizations (17%)
•Pharmaceuticals (16%)
•Other (22%)

Q. Does Austin have enough talent in the life sciences field to support the growing industry here?

MS: In the Austin metro area, you’ll find a combined enrollment of 177,000 students in four-year and community colleges. This provides an ample supply of well-educated workers to area employers. The student population within 100 miles of Austin exceeds 414,000, providing one of the world’s strongest talent pools. Life and physical scientists number over 4,500 in the metropolitan area’s workforce—approximately 43% of those are in life sciences fields.

With a strong talent pipeline and rapid emerging growth surrounding our development and growth phase, Austin will continue to add a deeper bench of talent that will be attracted to the unparalleled new opportunities, as we set our vision as a model healthy city of Healthcare innovation.

Q. What is going to set Austin apart from other healthcare centers around the country and world? What are the key factors we need to accomplish this vision?

MS: Leveraging the creative spirit of Austin that itself in innovation is key to this success.

Collaboration is key. Both inter-industry and inter-organizational collaboration is essential to the success of the community. Austin’s current high-growth industries within technology – creative/digital media, data management and life sciences/healthcare – have natural synergies that can create a whole greater than the sum of its parts, if proactive collaboration is sought.

Investing in knowledge communities. The importance of knowledge communities cannot be overstated, particularly in the life sciences field. The primary source of funding for medical research comes from the National Institutes of Health, which has been consistently declining in recent years, driving the need for additional autonomous research pipelines. Austin is working towards the creation of an innovation growth strategy that seeks to provide research testing facilities and incubators for early stage life science companies.

Everything rests on talent. Talent supply is the currency of innovation. While Austin has among the strongest workforces in the country –since 2000, more than 225,000 people with a bachelor’s degree or higher have moved to Austin – we must do more, particularly in the realm of middle class job creation and re-training. Programs at UT and Austin Community College (ACC) are pioneering efforts in short-term skills certification, and have an opportunity to provide far greater resources with their recent expansion and enhanced offerings.

Know your strengths – and be honest about your challenges. Austin has a unique opportunity to approach the next phase in its evolution in a way that’s exclusively Austin – focused on lifestyle and a thoughtful, creative and inclusive community. Austin should focus on being a better Austin, not becoming Silicon Valley. Austin has phenomenal things happening in music, art, technology and culture, and projects should stitch all of those things together. A current challenge for Austin is a gap in the talent pool focused on life sciences, but convergence from its strength sectors within technology will go a long way towards influencing digital and software driven innovation that has applications in healthcare.

There is a national opportunity to transform the medicine and life science sectors. While the “IT and Informatics Revolution” has escalated massive innovation in industries like banking, communications and media, making inroads in the healthcare industry has proven much more difficult, with “a broken innovation system”. For multiple reasons, healthcare has been notoriously resistant to technology advances. As a country, we spend more than any industrialized nation on healthcare, but our health outcomes are roughly equivalent to that of Cuba. New, collaborative research organizations that cross sector and industry lines offer the opportunity to be at the forefront of this transformation.

Q. What other ingredients does the city need to create a thriving life sciences industry?

MS: What we choose to invest in now will shape Austin’s future prosperity, and seizing opportunities presented by a new Tier-1 research medical school and teaching hospital and a thriving, hungry creative community, is a great first step. To address and build the innovation economy, we must collaborate, continue enhancing our workforce and build private capital.

Most importantly, we must continue with collective passion and fire, to accomplish this big, bold vision and opportunity.

Editor’s note: this is the first in a series of Q&As with the people featured in the Silicon Hills News 2016 technology calendar.