Sandra Watson

President & CEO, Arizona Commerce Authority

My career in economic development has spanned more than 20 years, and I’ve been honored to serve under five different governors. While they varied in political parties, all shared a common goal: advancing Arizona. Today, under Governor Ducey’s leadership, our state is recognized as a global leader in innovation and emerging technologies. The Arizona Commerce Authority is focused on leveraging our strengths in these areas to maintain our competitive position and economic momentum.

Perspective on Innovation

When I started my career in economic development in the 1990s, traditional economic development practices focused solely on attracting new companies and doing some work to help grow existing businesses. It’s a fine foundation, and many places continue to benefit from pursuing that method. But I learned early on in my career, staying on the same path and not being open to new approaches is not a good strategy for success. In fact, in some cases, taking the road less traveled is what makes all the difference, as Robert Frost reminds us.

Consider the industry giants of the 20th century. None of them can be accused of sitting still—they were building on their foundations by making incremental improvements to their products or services, rolling them out to consumers in a linear, predictable manner. It sounds sensible, even logical. But this traditional, tried-and-true approach became the downfall of many iconic brands.

In contrast, the innovative companies of today, many of which weren’t even in existence five or 10 years ago, were started by visionary thinkers. Because they weren’t incumbents, they didn’t have anything to lose. As a result, their founders came up with entirely new models that enabled them to blow past their competitors, the slower-moving established players. Preserving the existing order or attempting to emulate it didn’t interest them. Whether it was intentional or not, they have pushed industries in new, productive directions.

This is how I view Arizona’s position. Because our state is young compared to the rest of the nation, and made up of leaders who aren’t interested in maintaining the status quo, we have a real opportunity to create value through new approaches. By encouraging, embracing and leveraging emerging technologies, we will not only grow Arizona’s economy, we will play a role in solving challenges the world will face.

Each of the five governors I’ve served under has played a key role in galvanizing our state’s culture of innovation.

Governor Symington advanced an industry cluster strategy that gained Arizona national recognition, particularly for our optics cluster. Under Governor Hull’s leadership, Prop 301 was first passed in 2000 to provide increased education and research funding in Arizona. Governor Napolitano created the Governor’s Council on Innovation and Technology, with a vision to make Arizona a center of excellence in these areas as a means for driving economic growth. In 2011, the Arizona Commerce Authority was established under Governor Brewer’s leadership, creating a new, innovative model for economic development with a strong private-sector focus.

Now, under Governor Ducey’s leadership, we have rapidly advanced Arizona’s reputation as the number one place for new ideas and new business models. Arizona is consistently ahead of every other state in advancing policies and projects that support innovation, such as creating a sandbox for the testing of innovative new financial products and services and laying the foundation for 5G technology. As a result, we’re drawing companies from all over the world that are doing incredible work in next-gen trend areas such as automated mobility, blockchain, the internet of things and artificial intelligence.

While others may be focused on being the “next Silicon Valley”—or beach, or forest, or desert—Arizona’s competitive advantage lies in the fact that we’re unconcerned with what’s already been done. This approach embodies Arizona’s unique, pioneering spirit. By taking our own path, we’re shaping our own future.

Why Phoenix?

Seventy percent of Arizona’s adult population was born somewhere else, yet chose to make our state their home—that’s remarkable. People genuinely want to be here and have a vested interest in helping their communities. This has created a willingness to work together and support each other as a means of fostering success. Arizona’s inclusiveness is a very different experience than you’ll have in other more established, exclusive, and expensive markets.

The Future of Innovation

The future doesn’t just happen—it is shaped through bold ingenuity. Technology has always changed and enhanced the way we live and work, yet the transformations we are living through today are unprecedented in their speed, scale, and complexity. This is perhaps the most exciting time in human history, and Arizona has an incredible opportunity to define and advance the technologies and policies of tomorrow. While change may be unsettling to some, we recognize that this is the way to shaping our future, and we intend to remain at the leading edge of innovation.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

- Buckminster Fuller

Advice & Best Practices

Arizona is known for having a highly-collaborative innovation ecosystem—people here encourage and support each other more than they compete. My first piece of advice would be to integrate yourself into the community—get to know what resources are available to help you. Don’t underestimate the power of good connections and people who are willing to provide valuable feedback about your ideas. Collaboration and the exchange of ideas are critical to innovation. Related to that, I’d advise any entrepreneur—in Arizona or elsewhere—to seek mentorship, whether through a program or just by approaching someone you admire. Just be respectful of that person’s time and make sure you’re using it in a valuable way.

You should have a clear vision, but don’t be afraid to pivot—as you bring your idea to life, reach out often to people in the community for feedback. If you’re not going in the right direction, they’ll help you recalibrate. Arizona is also full of young, motivated talent—take advantage of that as your business grows to build a team that shares your passion. Doing so will not only help you achieve your goals more quickly, but it will also ensure you establish the right organizational culture. Finally, be judicious with your resources to extend your runway as long as possible. Don’t raise money until you need to, and when you’re ready, come armed with a professional pitch deck. The investor community in our state is close-knit, so you want to make a good impression from the start. Arizona offers plentiful resources and assets to help you succeed as an entrepreneur, it’s just a matter of making sure you engage with them.

Arizona Commerce Authority

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