By Silas Lyons

Record Searchlight, Sept 2011

I’ve camped regularly since childhood and then went into journalism, so I’ve been starting fires for a long time.

There are many methods, but mine is simple and generally works, even in damp or windy conditions. You start with the driest and thinnest stuff you can get hold of — crushed newspaper or fallen leaves, generally. You place it in a small pile,
then add thin kindling in a teepee shape, the pieces touching at the top. Bigger pieces of kindling layer on, then you light the whole thing from the bottom.

The worse the conditions, the trickier it is to start, and the smaller the first bits of kindling must be.

Throw a log on it at this point, and it’s all over. No matter how much your fellow campers whine, you can’t rush the process. It’ll get hot soon enough.

Why the lecture on campfires? Because they’re a lot like innovation, and I’m convinced that the careful nurturing of innovation is one of the only options for heating up the cold economy of our region.

This fire’s going to have to be built in a storm, making it very challenging but even more important.

The good news? The first bits of material are piling up, in no particular order:

Leadership. People like Mark Lascelles, the new head of the Economic Development Corp. of Shasta County, and Scott Putnam, owner of Apex Technology Management Inc. and this year’s chairman of the Greater Redding Chamber of Commerce, among
a small group of other community leaders, are taking innovation seriously and tackling its challenges head-on.

Entrepreneurs. Dan Morrow, who grew up in Redding, has a growing global business that builds testing equipment for the fastest growing segment of the LED market. John Weise, who moved here recently from the Bay Area, is designing technology
for smartphones that just might be the way you pay for things in the future. And so on. When local entrepreneurs make a global mark, the innovation space will start to be taken seriously both here at home and by those looking at us from

People. Innovative companies eventually need employees — technical whizzes, mechanical geniuses, marketers, sales execs. One of the most promising, if controversial, sources right now is Bethel Church and its School of Supernatural Ministry.
Local entrepreneurs with no connection to the church have repeatedly told me that the students it’s bringing (and that includes mid-career professional types, not just 20-somethings) have had an unmistakable impact on the local labor pool.

Networks. Remember those bits of kindling, which light best when they’re stacked so that they cross at the top. Leaders, entrepreneurs and potential employees need to connect with each other. Technology can be developed anywhere, so why do
so many companies still flock to Silicon Valley? Movies, too, can be made anywhere — so why did it matter to have a place called Hollywood? One-time events like the EDC’s recent innovation luncheon are vital at this stage, but the real test
will be the development of ongoing meetups.

Education. Frankly, this is a weakness. Except Anderson New Technology High School, there’s little focused attention on training up a skilled workforce for our region. But Shasta College’s new president, Joe Wyse, and Simpson University President
Larry McKinney are well aware of the movement in this space, and one hopes they’ll take an interest in working directly with industry to design future courses and programs. Chico State University, too, can be an ally.

Funding. You don’t just go to a bank and ask for a loan for an innovative business. Trust me — I’ve tried. It was a little embarrassing. Mike Frank, a former corporate executive who moved here for Bethel, is starting a fund for the kind of
smaller, early-stage cash investments that startup ventures need. Frank’s efforts are overtly tied to his faith (the fund name, Sons of Issachar, is a biblical reference), and that may turn off some potential investors and funding prospects.
But the establishment of the first such fund here is significant, and is critical to future efforts.

So there’s some kindling. It’s way too early to pretend we’ve got a blazing fire going. What’s important is to keep at it.

It would be easy to take a passive approach to this, either with optimism or defeatism.

I’ve heard folks refer to our proximity to Silicon Valley (um, sort of) as if that somehow means innovation will just come to us. That’s like sitting waiting for an ember to shoot off your neighbor’s fire and set your wood alight.

Luck and outside forces do not constitute a plan.

And don’t give me the sob story about taxes, regulation, or who’s running the White House or the Congress. World-class companies have started and life-changing innovations have happened throughout American history under every imaginable sort
of condition.

Building our economy is our job, as a community, and it’s the most important one we have. We’ll have nothing better to look forward to — whether in safety, schools, social programs, pothole repair, you name it — without that.