In April, Katie Stebbins started her new gig as the state’s assistant secretary of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship in the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. Since then, she says, “It’s been four months of sprinting — crazy amounts of sprinting.” Stebbins, a former city planner and economic development consultant, has crisscrossed the state, working to nurture entrepreneurial ecosystems. Stebbins, 44, recently spoke about talent in the life sciences sector, her daily commute from Springfield, and her passion for roller derby.
1. Stebbins designed her position to be different from any existing role in state government. In fact, she’s the first state bureaucrat to adopt her new title. (Her predecessor, Eric Nakajima, was assistant secretary for innovation policy). Stebbins’s broadened purview includes creative industries like design and the arts and aims to reflect the increasing importance of connecting different sectors in the innovation economy.
“The position wasn’t logical five years ago, or six years ago,” she said. “But as we thought about it today, you can’t do innovation without talking about tech, without talking about entrepreneurship.”
2. Stebbins has an eye on a perennial issue facing the state’s booming life sciences sector: talent. As companies scour the globe for “entrepreneur-academics,” Stebbins sees an opportunity to build the state’s talent pool through its large population of entrepreneurially minded undergraduates.
“Something’s missing in between to get the undergraduate — who’s very entrepreneurial and wants to create [his or her] own business — into the world of research and to then go on later in life to be an entrepreneur again. That’s a challenge for life sciences specifically, and I haven’t heard many deep conversations on how to address this.”
3. Stebbins’s economic development work may seem far removed from labs and hospitals, but she feels a deep, personal connection to efforts that aim to prevent or find cures for disease. Thoracic arthritis runs in her family, and Alzheimer’s disease runs in her husband’s. And Stebbins’s mother has survived breast cancer.
“As you get older and get a sense of your own mortality and the mortality of the people around you, it completely changes your hope and your interest in how health care and technology are going to make your life easier.”
4. Stebbins commutes to Boston from her home in Springfield, a trip that sometimes means five hours on the road a day. When she has early meetings, she takes a 5:15 a.m. Peter Pan bus. On other days, she drives with her husband, a fellow commuter to Boston, who sits at the wheel of their Subaru Forester while Stebbins sends e-mail and schedules her meetings. Stebbins has lived and worked for two decades in Western Massachusetts, which has largely been bypassed by the state’s tech economy. Her experiences there, she said, shape her approach to her new job.
“My point of view does start from the western part of the state out. That’s not typical — I have an ability to have a different view of our economy. If someone had got my position who was a Boston-centric person, I think the person would be a lot more challenged to have that point of view.”
5. A few years ago, after hearing about a roller derby team that was popular with Springfield’s entrepreneurs, Stebbins decided to see what the fuss was all about. She was promptly hooked and skated on the team for two seasons. Although her new job in state government has prompted her to “retire” from the sport, she plans to support the roller derby scene in Boston.
“I got the MVP cape at one of the games, which was a pinnacle. I was like, now I can just go into helper mode. That was the mountaintop.”Rebecca Robbins can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaDRobbins.