The future of business requires bold thinking, partnerships, Sen. Blumenthal urges

March 05, 2021

A student watches Sen. Blumenthal on her computer.

In a time of lifesaving vaccines and renewable energy, Connecticut’s greatest resource is its brainpower, innovation and ingenuity, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday night.

Blumenthal, the state’s senior senator, made the remarks as the kickoff speaker for the annual People’s United Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship Speaker Series at Quinnipiac. The hour-long webinar was co-sponsored by the People’s United Center for Women & Business.

“We have no oil wells. We have no gold mines. We have no Grand Canyon. What we have is really smart people,” Blumenthal said. “They invent things and form new organizations — and that’s the lifeblood of our economy. It’s the energy that drives it forward.”

The best way to unlock that intellectual potential, the senator said, is with higher education, the private sector and the government working together to solve problems with relentless research and critical thinking.

“If we’re talking about the health of our economy and innovation and invention, we have to invest in our institutions of higher learning,” Blumenthal said. “Even with the latest COVID relief [package], the American Rescue Plan, I’m working for more funding for institutions like Quinnipiac.”

Fred McKinney, PhD, sees the need for more higher education funding every day. McKinney is the Carlton Highsmith Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the School of Business and director of the People’s United Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

“We do everything we can on campus to support students with their early-stage ideas. Some of these ideas are just phenomenal,” McKinney said. “But there’s a disconnect. They don’t have access to banks. They’re not taken as seriously as they should be.”

But while the COVID-19 pandemic has battered many small businesses and shed millions of jobs, now is not the time to pull back on funding or the ambition of young entrepreneurs, said Blumenthal.

“We need to continue investment in basic research. We need the scientists, the mathematicians, the researchers—and we also need the entrepreneurs who will take advantage of the discoveries,” he said. “If we try to economize now, if we cut back, we are in effect burning our seed corn. You need that seed corn, the basic research, for the harvest that will take place in the future.”

Blumenthal pointed to the accelerated timeline for the COVID-19 vaccine as one example. He said the research for the mRNA technology used for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was developed years before the pandemic. Because the companies didn’t have to start their research from scratch, the development of these vaccines had a head start getting to market.

The delivery method for the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine also was developed well before the pandemic began. “They were [all] standing on the shoulders of the researchers and scientists before them who worked long and hard to develop this technology,” the senator said.

But without access to education — and the money to pay for it — the number of entrepreneurs, researchers and scientists will shrink dramatically in the future. The conclusion hit home for many on the webinar.

Quinnipiac students asked Blumenthal about the impact of debilitating student debt on young entrepreneurs, among other questions. At present, there is $1.7 trillion of student debt on the books, according to the Federal Reserve.

“If I had to pick one issue where the future of America is vitally impacted and the federal government could — with the stroke of a pen — turbocharge our educational system and our entrepreneurial talent, it would be eliminating student debt,” Blumenthal said.

“I recognize there are as they say, moral hazards — someone who has already taken the debt, the person who may incur it — but in my view, the whole system has to be reformed,” Blumenthal said. “Student debt is the second-biggest debt in this country after credit card debt. ... Someone who has $100,000 in student debt isn’t going to be able to start a business or even buy a home.”

Reducing student loan debt and increasing government funding also will promote opportunity and diversity in the nation’s universities, labs and workplaces, Blumenthal said.

“The challenge ahead for this country will be to nurture and foster the kind of innovation that the People’s United Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship is supporting,” he said. “We need the diversity in scientific research and in entrepreneurship that truly reflects our society. We need to look like America. We need to take advantage of that enormous talent and energy.”

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