By Denny Barney

If you have a FitBit or any other type of wearable device, you know the appeal of the growing medical-electronic technology industry. It is a field with the potential to address — and perhaps solve — some of our most pressing health challenges. But only if we teach people to start companies, design products and do the highly technical work involved in getting those products to market.  

Arizona State University had an idea to address this challenge. The university wanted to collaborate with industry leaders, healthcare companies and community colleges to create a comprehensive program specifically tailored to train the next generation of MedTech entrepreneurs and workers.  

ASU leaders told me about the idea in its early stages and I liked it. I know my colleagues on the Board did, too. But how could we help? ASU needed financial support to get the project going and that’s not something the county can or would do with taxpayer money from the general fund.  It’s a good thing we have the Maricopa County Industrial Development Authority.

You might not know about the entity. The name alone prompts more questions than it answers.  Is it part of the government or separate from it? Just what kind of industry is it developing? And what authority do they have to do it?

First things first: the Industrial Development Authority is a nonprofit corporation established by the state constitution. It promotes economic development through low-cost financing and community investments, and while its budget is separate from the county’s, its work is overseen and its governing board is appointed by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.  

Two of my appointees from District 1, Jim Rounds and Jeremey Stawiecki, currently serve on its board. They and their colleagues decide what projects to take on, but they do so knowing those projects need to align with the strategic goals of the county.

What are those goals? Well, for starters, we want to help create jobs that improve quality of life.  And we want an economy that works for everyone. Not just now, but for generations to come.

That’s why the corporation provided a $2 million grant to ASU to jumpstart the MedTech workforce program. That’s why it was the primary source of funding for the recently-launched PipelineAZ, a software platform that connects job seekers and employers in new ways. That’s why it is providing grants this year to a diverse set of community organizations that serve, among others, veterans and disabled folks, the homeless and justice-involved, and the so-called “opportunity youth” who are neither in school nor employed.  

Again, you’re not paying for these investments with your county tax dollars. Instead, the corporation makes money through fees it charges for facilitating low-interest or tax-exempt loans. Those fees go back into the community in the form of grants — like the one to ASU’s MedTech program — which further the corporation’s mission to boost economic development.  These are not just investments in our present, but in our future.

Let’s face it, the Maricopa County that our kids and grandkids inherit will be a lot different than the one we remember as kids. Just think about what has happened over the past few generations in the East Valley. Around the time my parents were born in the mid-1940s, Gilbert was a town of less than 1,000 people. Now there are more than 250,000 residents, with the population doubling in the decade between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.  

Who would have imagined a few generations ago the information available at our fingertips in 2018? Who would have pictured a watch that could track your heart rate or sleep? Or pull up a workout that could improve your health?

The Maricopa County Industrial Development Authority takes a long-term approach to growing and diversifying our regional economy. As leaders, our responsibility is not to predict the future (no one can do that); our role is to invest in possibility, to track outcomes, and to make sure that we are using all the tools we have at our disposal to improve quality of life for all.

Denny Barney is a Gilbert resident and a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.