How to Build a Successful Innovation Ecosystem: Educate, Network, and Celebrate


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and/or worked closely with well over a dozen regions to understand what works and what does not work—and in some cases to help them start to build a strong, sustainable ecosystem to bridge this gap. Each region has its own cultural flavor, so one shoe does not fit all. But there are some underlying truisms—and some surprising findings—that can be very beneficial and actionable.

Specifically, I have come to look at innovation ecosystems as having seven key elements or pods (see the Innovation Ecosystem diagram below right).

Innovation ecosystem

Each pod is necessary, important, and deserving of attention—but to be clear, none are sufficient on their own. In fact, too much focus on or investment in certain elements when the overall system is not ready can do damage to the development of a sustainable ecosystem. Likewise, each element can be a constraint on the overall ecosystem’s development. In short, the success of any action depends on the current status of the environment.

Still, those caveats aside, what I have found fascinating is that our research does point to some elements of this system as having more leverage than others. Time after time, in fact, two specific elements have emerged as the points where change can be most effectively implemented. They are also the best indicators of a vibrant and sustainable innovation ecosystem—and their crucial role was not obvious at all when we started.

The first is culture. This was the number one determinant of a successful ecosystem, and the number one leverage point. A successful innovation culture can generally be identified by the answers to the following questions: Is the entrepreneurial spirit celebrated? Are there visible role models who are the proverbial “rock stars?” Are they the extreme exception or not? Are entrepreneurs held in high esteem for taking a chance and making a difference? Is failure understood to be part of the learning process in business, as it is in experimental science? Are there serial entrepreneurs? What is their level of ambition? Do young people aspire to be global entrepreneurs? Or are young people encouraged to get “safe” or “prestigious” jobs in large companies or government?

Needless to say, a culture that celebrates entrepreneurship generates an environment where startup businesses can thrive and the pipeline for future entrepreneurs tends to build.

The next most important (and it’s not unconnected) element after culture relates to the entrepreneurs themselves and, more specifically, their skills and network. The key here is their ability to build new companies, often by expanding their network of contacts and seeking advice from others. Entrepreneurs must seek to utilize their networks not only for business contacts but for knowledge. However, networking is not enough. A willing and connected army of entrepreneurs is a great start, but entrepreneurs must also be armed with the proper weapons to allow them to build their skill sets as much as possible in a practical way. Fortunately, those weapons, which include knowledge and experience of entrepreneurship, can be taught.

You might now ask, “Can you influence and affect culture and build entrepreneurial skills?” And the answer is yes and no. You cannot change the people (most likely older) who are … Next Page »

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Bill Aulet is the Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at MIT, as well as a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship”. Follow @BillAulet

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3 responses to “How to Build a Successful Innovation Ecosystem: Educate, Network, and Celebrate”

  1. Angelo says:

    I enjoyed the article. I would add though that it also takes success, especially economic success to sustain an innovation culture. There are many universities around the world that produce great science; however, the mechanism for bringing innovations to market does not exist. I believe that this is largely because there is no economic advantage or incentive for doing so. At MIT the tech transfer office plays a big role in spinning out and licensing innovations for the profit of both the school and the founders.

    What has drawn innovators and entrepreneurs to the US in the past was the prospect of “living the dream”; aka having a big payday.

    Celebrating the creation and capture of value is critical in developing and sustaining an innovation culture. So as we slide down the slippery slope of Socialism how will we sustain the culture right at home so that others may live the dream?