The US Department of Commerce wants to friend Silicon Valley. That's the message from Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who made her first official visit this week to what she called a "place of majestic beauty" and a "dynamic and innovative ecosystem that is envied not just across the United States but throughout the world."
Pritzker met with Silicon Valley executives from Facebook, Google, and eBay, and with startup entrepreneurs. "With the country moving at warp speed toward the 'Internet of Everything,' our goal at the Department of Commerce as a service organization is to support you, whether you are a researcher, inventor, entrepreneur, mentor, or investor," she said during a visit to the Plug and Play Tech Center, a Silicon Valley startup accelerator.
Pritzker's focus on the tech sector, as represented by Silicon Valley, is not misplaced. "Today, the United States has 6 million workers employed in technology and the highest concentration of knowledge and technology intensive industries in the world, representing 40 percent of our GDP," she said.
The secretary of commerce is no stranger to the region, business, or entrepreneurship. She received most of her education in the heart of Silicon Valley -- Palo Alto -- including a law degree and MBA from Stanford. She calls herself a "Silicon Valley girl" and made her own fortune on top of the family fortune -- Pritzker's father co-founded the Hyatt Hotel chain. She is a founder of Parking Spot, an airport offsite parking chain; Vi, a luxury residence for older adults; and the Pritzker Realty Group. A fellow Chicagoan and supporter of President Obama, Pritzker has served on the President's Council for Jobs and Competitiveness and the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board.
Since July 2013, she's presided over a $7.5 billion budget, 47,000 employees, and an odd amalgam of federal bureaus, administrations, offices, and national institutes that perform a broad range of functions, including trade negotiation, patent processing, census collection, economic analysis, cybersecurity standards, broadband infrastructure, and weather monitoring.
"For us to keep up with your pace of change, this leadership team is breaking down silos throughout our agency," Pritzker said. The Department of Commerce is conducting its own "mashup," she added.
Pritzer told the crowd of Silicon Valleyites at the Plug and Play Tech Center the obvious: data is the fuel for innovation in the 21st century. She announced two new data initiatives as fuel for further breakthroughs. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which collects 20 terabytes of environmental data daily, would be unleashing more of its data for use by the business and scientific communities.
"This is twice the data of the entire printed collection of the entire Library of Congress, yet only a small percentage of that information -- roughly two terabytes -- is made easily accessible to the public," she said, noting that U.S. industries affected by weather and climate account for about one-third of the country's gross domestic product. "This new partnership will unlock more weather and climate information to stimulate the creation of new industries, boost economic growth, and spur employment," she stated.
In addition, the Census Explorer interactive maps will now include tech workforce and payroll data. "You will now be able to look at tech employment in regions like this one along with other factors like education, labor-force participation, and home ownership rates," Pritzker said.
On the patent-law reform front, the Obama administration launched a joint initiative between the US Patent and Trademark Office and private industry to improve access to prior-art filings as a way to reduce costs for startups who are dealing with potential patent trolls.
Regarding the adverse impact on U.S. businesses, especially those operating in foreign countries, in light of revelations about US spying activities in NSA documents obtained by Edward Snowden, Pritzker was circumspect. She is part of the group assigned by the White House to conduct a review of the potential impact of big data on personal privacy. "We should have a conversation as opposed to just evolving and then finding ourselves at odds," she said.
The Department of Commerce is also spearheading the creation of innovation hubs, public-private partnerships involving manufacturers, academics, and nonprofits to harness applied research and turn it into products that help the US stay competitive. This week the Obama administration announced two new manufacturing innovation hubs, with $280 million in funding. One will focus on lightweight and modern metals manufacturing, and the other on digital manufacturing and design technologies, such as 3D printing. The Obama administration is hoping to pass legislation that will fund 45 innovation hubs over the next decade.
Funding innovation hubs won't do much to stimulate the US economy unless the requisite talent exists to create breakthroughs in emerging industries. Pritzker cited the need to pass immigration reform to ensure that innovation happens within US borders. More than than 40 percent of the founders or CEOs of Silicon Valley firms, and 50 percent of the engineers in Silicon Valley, were born outside the US. In addition, more than 50 percent of the students earning advanced technical degrees in the country are not US citizens. Pritzer said instead of those talented, graduating PhD students having to leave the US, they should have a green card attached to their diplomas.
Pritzker is taking her cause to the people via social media, cheerleading for the Department of Commerce on tools made in Silicon Valley: Twitter and Instagram.
Just met with @Google to discuss how business, tech & govt can work together to help unleash America's entrepreneurial energy.-- Penny Pritzker (@PennyPritzker) February 25, 2014
The Department of Commerce is also testing out a new, more modern and accessible Web site design to navigate its myriad bureaus and offices. "The attitude of this administration and department is that we are open for business...and the business community is our customer," she said. The manifestation of customer satisfaction won't be anything like Amazon's near-frictionless commerce, but Secretary Pritzker at least hopes her agency can improve some of the conditions that enable businesses to grow and thrive.