how many audience members came from states with cluster funds. Only a few hands went up, but Ms. Mills says she knows there are more because she had catalogued 32 such state funds.

The next step was to figure out the federal role in regional economic clusters. She addressed these issues in a white paper on the topic for the Brookings Institution that was co-authored with Elizabeth Reynolds and Andrew Reamer.21

Later, Ms. Mills was appointed by President Obama to the transition team for the SBA. “Now I have the good fortune to have the best job in the world,” she said. “Now we are in a good position to do something we have been talking about for years, which is to have the federal government play a meaningful role in regional economic development clusters.”

The SBA is involved in other cluster initiatives besides the Energy Regional Innovation Cluster program, Ms. Mills said. Soon after joining the SBA in 2009, the agency began to focus on Michigan’s robotics industry, where a cluster had been forming among companies that had supplied the auto industry. Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, also has a Center for Robotics and Advanced Automation. This expertise was in demand by the Department of Defense. Sensors that monitor car engines, for example, are very valuable in applications such as unmanned probes to detect roadside bombs.

Recent studies, such one by the Computing Community Consortium titled “From Internet to Robotics”22 also piqued the SBA’s interest. The study said that “robotics technology clearly represents one of the few technologies capable in the near term of building new companies and creating new jobs.”

The SBA helped organize a two-day summit that brought together DoD procurement officers and Detroit-area robotics manufactures and suppliers. “We got 200 small businesses in the room, with the university and the Department of Defense, and kicked off a cluster there which right now is flourishing,” she said. In January, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation received the first clustering proposals from teams of private- and public-sector partners.

The SBA recently replicated the Michigan approach in Hampton Roads, Virginia, where similar technologies exist. They include robotics, unmanned systems, port security, sensors, modeling, and simulation. Another program is in Hawai’i, where there is a lot of unexploded ordinance that can be detonated by unmanned probes.

Ms. Mills said the SBA has funding in its 2010 budget for at least three more robotics clusters. There are five to seven more clusters, as well as pilot projects, that the agency may fund at some point.


21 Karen G. Mills, Elizabeth B. Reynolds, and Andrew Reamer, Andrew, Clusters and Competitiveness: A New Federal Role for Stimulating Regional Economies, op. cit.

22 See “From Internet to Robotics: A Roadmap for U.S. Robotics,” Computer Community Consortium final report to Congress, May 21, 2009, (<>).

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