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

10/14/08Follow @BillAulet

Last week, I was honored to give a keynote speech in Dublin, Ireland, at an international symposium marking the launch of the nation’s ambitious new R&D program in energy by its NSF equivalent, the Science Foundation of Ireland (SFI). The Symposium on Science and Engineering Underpinning Sustainable Energies and Energy-Efficiency was an excellent opportunity to reflect on what I think is one of the key elements to successful regional economic prosperity—the development of a vibrant innovation ecosystem.

With my colleague, Ken Morse (Managing Director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and an Xconomist), we have been involved first hand in the successful and unsuccessful development of over a dozen such ecosystems, and we have seen what has worked and what has not worked—with often-surprising results. Ireland provided an exciting clean slate platform to apply the framework for success and get feedback for refining the frameworks (based on the initial feedback, our ideas are clearly resonating). For if we are to succeed in optimal fashion in energy innovation, it is essential that we develop regional innovation clusters. Towards this end, we should make use of historical lessons to accelerate our success—and the good news in this regard is that there are some relatively simple leverage points that can be deployed which will have significant impact.

Like many Americans, especially in Boston, I have roots in Ireland. Distant as they are, Ireland has always held some magic for me. That magic was further catalyzed 19 years ago, when I visited with an American basketball team and we traveled that beautiful country playing games and then drinking Guinness from Cork to Galway to Dublin to Donegal to Belfast and a number of places in between. I don’t remember the scores of any of the games, but no one on our trip can forget the legendary memories we took back, which were later written up in a Sports Illustrated article that I keep framed on my wall at home. [Editor's note: that article was written by his teammate, backup shooting guard Bob "Danger" Buderi, founder of Xconomy.] The parade through Donegal with the mayor and the town’s children was one of the most priceless moments of our lives.

The people and the land exceeded the expectations we had—and yet all of this was in the context of an economic situation that we could not fathom at the time. There was little economic vitality, and we met a number of people who had been without work for over a decade and had little hope left on that front.

Last week, I returned to see the “Irish Economic Miracle” first hand. It is truly amazing and a shining inspiration for others throughout the world. I know, because I have been asked about it in places such as the United Arab Emirates, Denmark, Pakistan, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia. Leaders in those countries thirst to have a similar scenario in their lands and want to know how Ireland was so successful.

Well, now the question I posed at the aforementioned speech in Ireland is, “How do you keep it up and keep the economic renaissance moving forward as the global economy undergoes a metamorphosis of galactic proportions?”

The answer, and it doesn’t just hold true for Ireland, is energy innovation. There is no bigger challenge than to help transform our energy position—no bigger responsibility and no bigger opportunity.

So what I offer now is my perspective, based on our deep experience, on how regions can seize this opportunity, and more specifically how organizations like Science Foundation of Ireland can become leaders and full participants in the transformation of the world’s largest industry.

First, by providing leading-edge science, engineering, and mathematics research, SFI and other similar government agencies will help to produce the innovation needed, thereby putting their nations front and center as a role model for others.

But to understand how to most effectively achieve this, I believe it is essential to take a systems view to provide a broader context for the role of research and invention—hopefully in order to alter the traditional mindset so organizations such as SFI can be more effective going forward.

For example, using SFI as our test case, I would like to start with the first line of the organization’s objectives: “Science Foundation Ireland supports science, engineering and mathematics research with consequences in Ireland.” I will focus on three key words in this statement “research with consequences.” Trying to connect with my distant Irish roots, I could not help but have this translated to Gaelic—”taighde le torthai”—which means “research bearing fruits.”

It is these fruits that I will focus on, because to the degree that SFI can ensure that the research breakthroughs developed in Ireland are put to effective use, the organization will gain relevance.

So it is “torthai,” or consequences, that we seek. That being the case, a closer definition of consequences is merited.

At MIT, we love equations. They are simple and crystal clear. So, in that vein, let me take a minute to drill down on what consequences really are and how they relate to the research done at SFI.

Consequences are what we refer to as innovation. Innovation is something that generates value. For example, innovation helps companies make more money; it can materially reduce greenhouse gases; and it can materially enhance energy security for countries through greater independence.

As Ed Roberts, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and chair of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, so aptly described it in a simple equation: … Next Page »

Bill Aulet is the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup”, published by Wiley, which was released in August 2013. Follow @BillAulet

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  • Angelo

    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?

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