Eric Tomlinson has had a very cool job over the last six years, working as president and chief innovation officer at Winston-Salem’s Innovation Quarter. He’s helped breathe new life into the city’s downtown, aided by historic tax credits and his employer, Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. More than 150 companies and 3,600 workers now fill the former tobacco buildings for which the city is most famous. Tomlinson, 70, is stepping down March 1 and seeking a new challenge. He discussed his work in comments that were edited for brevity and clarity.
Are you pleased with your work over the last six years?
The narrative about Winston-Salem is getting stronger, primarily because of the impact of the Innovation Quarter and the emerging ecosystem that many people and institutions are contributing to. We are becoming a city focused on developing entrepreneurs and supporting innovative ideas. That growth is palpable.
Why are you leaving?
The success of the growth of Innovation Quarter and the work involved in sourcing, developing and commercializing ideas out of Wake Forest has become so huge — it’s really two separate positions.
It seemed to be the right time after six years. I like big challenges. I have very ambitious plans and I’m talking to a wide variety of sectors.
How can Innovation Quarter keep its momentum?
In the short term, I’m advising [Wake Forest Baptist CEO Julie Freischlag] as she synthesizes on new strategies. She is keenly away of our responsibilities in this city. But it has been a great partnership of the city, ourselves, elected officials and many others. A lot of agreements are embedded, with both obligations and financial commitments for many years to come.
Has it been hard to compete with Triangle, where the tech industry is thriving?
We’re a different beast and I try to avoid that comparison. But we’ve had the advantage of becoming a latecomer, which enables us to adapt to a changing world. I compare it to the French telephone system, which used to be the worst in the world. Then a couple companies created what has become the world’s most advanced mobile telephone system because the old one could be thrown away. We’ve had that big landscape that is ripe for significant change.
What is next for Winston-Salem?
The city is really thirsting for success because we haven’t had that biggest hit that spawns a lot of wealth that gets reinvested in the community, as has happened in Austin, Silicon Valley and Cambridge. We need a couple of big successes with liquidity events that will lead to wealth creation and create a whole new breed of entrepreneurs. I think that is next.
What’s the city’s biggest challenge?
Winston-Salem has been a manufacturing town so it needs to retool to focus on entrepreneurial activities. All your systems need to follow suit and STEM education is critical. If you don’t have the right education by age 19, you won’t participate in the knowledge economy. The challenge we have as a city is understanding of the need of STEM education.