Taking Tech Ideas Global: Connecting an Innovation Ecosystem


The word ecosystem conjures up a rain forest in Ecuador, where sunlight, soil, water, and a multitude of species exist together in a self-sustaining environment that is constantly evolving.

This image from biology translates perfectly into what many people like to call an innovation ecosystem.

Think of a group of people developing a new idea, all doing what they are good at. There are the founding teams, the technologists and business leaders with a big vision; the people with capital, such as grant providers and venture investment community; the potential customers, partners, and acquirers; the service providers who help along the way, like lawyers and recruiters. All of that together, and more, forms an innovation ecosystem, and it can serve any industry or sector where technology can be deployed.

As with a natural ecosystem, things appear organic, but the underlying rules are based in physics. You could think of it as a jazz quartet where there’s creativity within uniformity. There’s improvisation, there’s cohesion, it’s a bit non-linear, but there are underlying rules and principles or boundaries in which all the musicians must operate.

Israel, one of the world’s foremost innovation ecosystems, understands this. The Israeli Innovation Authority is launching a program to enable foreign entrepreneurs to learn from its experience. It set up the Innovation Visas program last December to bring entrepreneurs in for two years, and in June, selected the first 12 incubators and accelerators to serve as “landing pads” to guide applicants through the local high-tech ecosystem.

This framework will give international innovators some of the basic help they need to start out, such as work spaces, technological infrastructure, and business and logistical support. If they decide to establish a start-up there, they could receive government incentives offered to entrepreneurs who want to develop and validate technologies.

Another global technology hub has been actively playing this role for several years. The Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation is a buzzing ecosystem that hosts hundreds of companies and thousands of professionals working in areas such as green technology and biotech. It runs the Soft-landing Programme, a platform to encourage foreign universities and research institutes and their spin-off companies to commercialize their R&D innovations by promoting their ideas to Hong Kong industry.

The University of Washington is also embarking on development of an international innovation ecosystem through the groundbreaking new collaboration with the Global Innovation Exchange, a partnership with China’s Tsinghua University and foundation support from Microsoft. And, in June, a separate grassroots effort with the Dutch government commenced when Prince Constantijn van Oranje of the Netherlands led a delegation to Seattle as a special envoy for StartupDelta to help Dutch tech startups connect with businesses in the Pacific Northwest.

The Dutch are well positioned to be among the top innovation systems in the world, as they understand capital and have good universities, good programmers, and good designs. They already have experience in the innovation cycle. Case in point: The great companies of Phillips and Infineon are Dutch born and maintain their headquarters in the country. To reach the next level, they need help with scaling up. It will also require a culture shift, as they learn to accept that it’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to move quickly on an idea even though it’s not fully formed and tested out.

Connection is a crucial concept for an innovation ecosystem to work. But the connection here is much more meaningful and direct and human than a social network. It’s also based on trust so it takes time, whether you’re forming a team, negotiating with a customer, or financing a new product.

Most important for an innovation ecosystem is what I call the energy exchange. When you connect and resonate and energize with another person, there’s a creative spark and you come up with something together. There is no better way of creating teams than physical proximity. It doesn’t yet happen on Skype or a teleconference—part of the reason we’re bringing students from around the world together at the GIX in Bellevue, WA, to pursue innovation education together, in person. Once a connection has been created, once you have trust, then you can do things long distance. That’s different from the old way, where you start with a phone call or an e-mail and then go to a meeting in person.

Thomas Friedman talks about how the world is flat because we live in a network connected world. In a way, he’s right. Anyone can hire a programmer, develop a product, and trade with anyone in the world. But successful innovation depends on the quality of the connections. Most innovative products at their creation are made by teams of three to six people, and that interaction cannot be done remotely.

The Dutch entrepreneurs will spend ample time together with Seattle start-ups. This kind of relationship is the goal of the programs in Israel and Hong Kong, and will be more commonplace across the world. It’s necessary for all ecosystems connecting to each other to travel and spend time together.

So what happens if a Dutch scientist, a Seattle engineer, and a Hong Kong financier come together as the optimal team for an innovative product? How do they create the next large company without at least two of them having to move?

I think that’s the next open problem, the biggest challenge. To evolve, ecosystems need disruption, attention and nourishment and I’m sure new technologies, new business models and students and entrepreneurs that think globally and cross-culturally will help find a way.

Vikram Jandhyala is vice president for innovation strategy at the University of Washington. He is executive director of CoMotion, UW's collaborative innovation hub, and the UW co-CEO of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX). Follow @vikramjandhyala

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