Champaign’s Brain Drain
Communities based around college towns face a critical issue today: the flow of its creative talent away from the local community. Champaign County, which includes the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is no exception.
While the University of Illinois has a well-established reputation of producing innovators and entrepreneurs, it has particular difficulty in retaining them within the local community. A study by the Kauffman Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship, measured the flows of founders of Inc. 500 companies (a list of the fastest growing private companies in the United States) into and out of the communities where they were educated. Champaign had a negative flow of -15, meaning that 0 of 15 founders remained in the Champaign-Urbana area, the third lowest net flow of all of the studied regions. Interestingly, a majority of the communities with low net flows were college towns (Ann Arbor had the lowest net flow with -21) indicating that a particular “brain drain” exists in these communities. [see this post for details on the Kauffman study]
Richard Longworth, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs hit the nail on the head when he said “no one wants to invest in a place with few young, educated people.” While by nature the University of Illinois is filled with young, educated (or studying) people, these students rarely remain in the community upon graduating, often causing investors to overlook Champaign-Urbana.
Angel investors, venture capitalists, and other financiers are key ingredients to transforming an idea formed at the university into a successful innovation that builds up that supports the local entrepreneurial community. These investors naturally place themselves near large established entrepreneurial networks where they have many potential ventures to choose from, and thus a greater chance for success. Ideally, Champaign-Urbana would create a large sustainable entrepreneurial community to attract these investors, which in turn attract more entrepreneurial talent. An entrepreneurial community is cyclic in the sense that all the members of the community (entrepreneurs, designers, investors, business partners, etc.) attract one another. Thus, once it builds up to a certain “critical mass” the community becomes both economically and culturally sustainable. The challenge lies in initiating this cycle.