Bendis beats the drums for seed capital, innovation

Since the 2008 election of President Obama, Richard Bendis has been pushing for more innovation and early-stage investment in business in the United States.

He has a daily e-newsletter, called innovationDaily. He frequently speaks before groups such as the National Academy of Sciences and works as a consultant with states and countries on programs to encourage innovation.

Bendis came to Philadelphia in 2001 to become the founding CEO of Innovation Philadelphia, a city-funded organization started by then-Mayor John Street to tout Philadelphia as a hotbed of high-tech.

Despite the impressive board of directors assembled at the outset - one that included the heads of the University of Pennsylvania, Comcast and GlaxoSmithKline - Innovation Philadelphia and its mission appeared to overlap with a number of pre-existing regional business groups.

One thing we have no shortage of in Philadelphia is groups seeking to capture the attention of tech entrepreneurs. Innovation Philadelphia was cast as a complement to the activities of the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Association, Eastern Technology Council the University City Science Center and others.

But two years ago, Mayor Nutter cut all funding from Innovation Philadelphia, which had narrowed its focus from all things tech to advocate on behalf of the region’s “creative economy.” (Think architects, product developers, film production houses and digital media experts.)

I thought then that the organization was doomed, although its CEO at the time, Kelly R. Lee, said that it had other sources of funds. She was right, and the group continued to produce newsletters and run conferences albeit with a smaller staff.

As of April 16, Lee no longer runs Innovation Philadelphia, having left to “pursue other interests,” according to an e-mail sent by the organization. Bendis, who remained a board member even after he’d stepped down as CEO in 2006, was named chairman and unpaid leader of an organization that currently has no employees.

During a phone call Wednesday, Bendis told me his board would be talking with key stakeholders and partners about Innovation Philadelphia’s future direction.

If the board decides there is no future for Innovation Philadelphia, the region’s business community won’t be diminished by its demise. There will still be too many business advocacy and economic development organizations in the region even after the Eastern Technology Council and Mid-Atlantic Capital Alliance announced their merger earlier this month.

But Bendis and his methods of promoting entrepreneurship and seed-stage investing will still be here under his Innovation America organization. He said he loves it in Philadelphia.

Inspired by the change in administrations in Washington to launch Innovation America, Bendis said he’s become concerned that Obama’s innovation programs are benefitting big and medium-sized companies, rather than small firms and entrepreneurs.

Still, that won’t prevent him from trying to convince the administration of the merits of a national seed capital program, partly funded by the federal government and matched by investors in the states.