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May 23, 2013

Research Bureau Panel: Worcester Needs More Entrepreneurs

Worcester possesses many of the ingredients that could help it emerge as a nationally-known research and entrepreneurship hub, including research universities and access to Boston's venture capital market, said Mark Rice, dean of Worcester Polytechnic's business school.

But what it lacks, he said, is a pool of entrepreneurial talent to build companies and a culture that would in turn attract other talent.

To get from here to there, Rice thinks the city needs to have a place where students of its various colleges can work together on new innovations. The city needs an entrepreneurial culture to create, attract and keep the talent that will drive new development here, he said.

Rice spoke this morning as a member of a three-man panel organized by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau and hosted on the WPI campus. The panel's focus was focused on improving Worcester's competitiveness for attracting development.

Fellow panelist David Begelfer, head of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP), agreed with Rice's take. Companies used to make their real estate decisions based on where their CEOs lived. Now it's about finding the right workforce.

"The skilled talent is sort of the honey for the bees," Begelfer said.

Begelfer said Worcester's government needs to develop a streamlined system in which there is one point of contact to approach about development or real estate moves. And, he said, the commercial tax rate is too high.

"You're going to have to work on that," he said.

Panelist Daniel O'Connell, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and former state secretary of housing and economic development, said his membership of CEOs (which includes the heads of Staples, BJ's Wholesale Club, EMC Corp. and Raytheon) understands the importance of K-12 and higher education to the economy. The partnership is involved in a community college pilot called Pathways to Prosperity, in which several community colleges send faculty into high schools with the aim of improving core skills so the students have a better chance of success after graduation.

"I think our role in business is to become more involved in education at an earlier stage," O'Connell said.

O'Connell also had another message for Worcester, one which he characterized as a bit of tough love.

He said some in the city have a chip on their shoulder about playing second fiddle to Boston. And he said it's holding the city back.

"It's 'oh Boston did it to us again,'" he said. "All I can say is 'forget about it.' Be enthusiastic about your wins. Focus on your strengths. You have a lot of them."

A smiling Tim McGourthy, the city's chief development officer and panel moderator, responded: "Just like a Bostonian, we invite him out here, and he tells us to get over it."

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