Here in Corvallis, we like to brag about how smart we are. And why not? We are, after all, the birthplace of the inkjet printer, the transparent transistor and the Maraschino cherry.
Turns out we may be even smarter than we thought.
For years the city has been cropping up near the top of national “most innovative” lists, based on the number of patents issued per 100,000 people. But we always seemed to trail larger communities — most notably San Jose, Calif., the hub of Silicon Valley.
Now a group of academic researchers has come up with a new way of crunching the numbers that goes beyond per capita rankings to strip out some of the disproportionate advantages that come with size.
By their calculations, Corvallis emerges as the most innovative city in the United States, bar none. Based on a comparison of more than 350 metropolitan statistical areas, we also do very well in the related rankings of wealth creation and low crime rate.
Take that, San Jose!
The findings were published in the Nov. 10 edition of PLoS One, the online journal of the Public Library of Science, by Luis M.A. Bettencourt and Geoffrey B. West of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Santa Fe Institute, Jose Lobo of Arizona State University and Deborah Strumsky of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Their peer-reviewed article, titled “Urban Scaling and Its Deviations: Revealing the Structure of Wealth, Innovation and Crime Across Cities,” argues that traditional per capita measurements of income, unemployment, crime and other factors follow remarkably similar “scaling laws” from city to city.
For instance, the study determined that urban rates of everything from economic productivity and innovation to crime and infectious disease increase by roughly 15 percent with every doubling of a city’s population.
So what they tried to do was strip out these predictable increases to see what underlying influences make cities different from one another.
The researchers came up with a new set of measurements they call SAMIs — scale-adjusted metropolitan indicators — to gauge a city’s performance against other urban areas without regard to size.
“SAMIs capture human and social dynamics specific to a given place and time — its true local flavor — and represent its successes and failures relative to other cities,” they wrote. “They allow direct comparison between any two cities and provide meaningful rankings across the urban system.”
Local leaders were pleased, if a little puzzled, by the latest distinction to come Corvallis’ way.
“I’m glad to know that physicists are working on these things,” Mayor Julie Manning joked on Monday. “It’s always nice to be recognized in this fashion, and it’s terrific for this city.”
The trick, of course, is to find ways to cash in on that recognition.
Skip Rung, the president and executive director of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute and a member of the city’s newly formed Economic Development Commission, pointed out that the main driver of new patents in Corvallis is Hewlett-Packard, the Silicon Valley company, with a major campus here in town.
But that’s starting to change. Rung noted that Oregon State University is accelerating its efforts to commercialize university research, recently expanding its technology transfer office.
“I think the growth in research at OSU is what gives me the most optimism, and the quality of that research,” Rung said.
Other local commercialization efforts are beginning to bear fruit, as well.
ONAMI and its partners — OSU’s Microproducts Breakthrough Institute and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory — are nurturing a number of startups at their Corvallis labs. One of those, Home Dialysis Plus, is believed to have set a record for Oregon companies when it landed $50 million in early-stage investment funding last year.
“We have great talent and assets here,” Rung said. “I think Corvallis has as good an opportunity as anybody” to capitalize on innovation.
Curtis Wright, the interim director of Visit Corvallis, said the tourism agency would tout the city’s top ranking for patent generation on its website and in the next edition of its visitor’s guide.
Wright said the No. 1 rating should help OSU land more research grants and recruit top students and faculty. He also hopes it will prove useful in recruiting top employers to town.
“Being someplace where you’ve got a lot of smart people certainly helps,” he said.
Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.