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

10/14/08Follow @BillAulet

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set in their ways—so the best approach is not to try to change everyone, but rather to be more focused in your change-management efforts. If you target appropriately, you can win over a beachhead core group who will ultimate change the culture in pockets of their region. These initial beachheads of success, if handled properly, can quickly have an effect on the broader culture and their influence will accelerate over time. You must start by targeting the most ambitious, the most internationally well read/exposed, the most creative, and usually the youngest candidates—and then, after achieving a level of success with this group, you can expand to a wider audience with credibility and experienced and strong advocates.

To get things going you start with a select group of entrepreneurs and you feed them, you celebrate them, and you give them visibility with focused events, workshops, and competitions. And when done properly, this celebration of entrepreneurship will suddenly become contagious and start to grow on its own. We have developed programs at MIT and elsewhere to do just this, including holding American Idol-like entrepreneurial contests in various regions—but with much kinder, gentler, and more supportive judges—and coupling them to educational programs.

This was the thought process behind the design of the MIT ecosystem which includes the Energy Ventures course at MIT as well as the $200K MIT Clean Energy Competition. The class offers entrepreneurship training specific to energy to a select advanced group of students, and the competition offers a big carrot—the money, bright lights, and a big stage—which allows the students to put their new-found skills to work immediately. Their complementary nature is creating effective synergies. There are other extremely valuable forums for recognition, networking, and celebration as well, and it is important to support them to prime the pump.

At MIT we have a large, established platform and an opportunity for big formal events like the Clean Energy Competition, but in other regions, it is critical to employ a model that is more resource and culture appropriate. This has been done by coupling smaller networking and celebration events with educational programs so that participants receive the proper practical mentorship in entrepreneurial fundamentals. These educational programs include two-day workshops that are held monthly over a six- to nine-month time frame, with plenty of mentoring between workshops. Included in this training is a trip to other centers of innovation, so that participants widen their perspective and make new contacts. As they are trained and succeed, they become the next generation of mentors, and the process becomes customized and self-sustaining.

There are several other leverage points that can and should be addressed, but these two have consistently proven to be the most important—and all other efforts will gain from improving these two elements.

As mentioned before, it is also very important that the ecosystem be connected to other leading and relevant ecosystems worldwide. According to Metcalfe’s law, the value of the network is exponentially related to the number of quality nodes on the network—so all parties will benefit from more and better connections.

As I was reading Thomas Friedman’s outstanding new book (Hot, Flat and Crowded) on the energy challenge we face and how best to address it, one part jumped out at me. That was when Friedman described his own favorite renewable fuel not as solar, geothermal, or wind, but as “an ecosystem for innovation.” He wrote that, “I want 10,000 different people trying 10,000 different things in 10,000 different garages.”

I could not agree with him more. The greatest renewable energy source we have here is innovation. That comes from entrepreneurial people coupled with great inventors—and it can be greatly facilitated by an intelligently designed ecosystem. For energy, the specific challenges are huge and in many ways different than they are for other areas, but the high-level process to accelerate innovation is the same.

So, although the Irish have a love of words, I will use only three words to summarize how to foster the successful innovation ecosystems that we need so much in energy: educate, network, and celebrate. That’s easy enough to remember, isn’t it? No equations, amazing.

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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  • http://www.dakinmanagement.com Angelo

    Bill,
    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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