Innovation and entrepreneurship are the cornerstones of any growing economy but it isn't sufficient to have great innovators and great entrepreneurs. A thriving ecosystem requires additional stimulation to ensure that innovation-driven entrepreneurship is alive and well, and that the opportunities within the ecosystem are being maximised.
In 2012 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (REAP), which aims to bring together an international cohort of countries and regions that are like-minded in wishing to grow their local economies. Cohort 3 features Wales along with Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok, Ashdod (Israel), Medina (Saudi Arabia), Santiago and Norway – a truly culturally diverse group united by the common purpose of increasing innovation-driven entrepreneurship within their country or region. The opportunity for cross-globe and cross-cultural learning is immense and we can learn significantly from the natural resource-rich countries of Saudi Arabia, Chile and Norway, the entrepreneurial startup culture of Israel and Thailand, the growth challenges of China, and the corporate strength of Japan.
The Wales panel members comprise a group of ten key influencers, between them uniformly representing each of REAP's five key pillars - entrepreneurs, funders, universities, big business, and government - unlike some of our fellow international participants who are generally very strong in one or two pillars and perhaps less strong in others. These panel members are united by a common purpose of driving economic growth in Wales and notably have pledged their extremely valuable time to the two-year initiative free of charge - true demonstration that we believe we can make a difference.
The challenge for Wales is that there is so much activity that it is very difficult to see what is going on where and how such activity can benefit the wider ecosystem. Much activity happens in silos, and since information-sharing is unintentionally poor, key initiatives often tend to stay within the broad remit of that particular pillar. The first objective of REAP is therefore to improve visibility since existing platforms attempting to solve this are often complex in nature and non-trivial to extract data from.
If we are to truly make a difference in Wales we must start with generational change. It is long term and it will take a generation to see massive results, but the process needs to start in school. Recent educational reports from the likes of Donaldson identify enterprise as a key element of the curriculum. At Simply Do we refer to this as 'creating agile minds for a changing world', which is to do with ensuring that our young are innovative in their approach, enterprising in their ideas, and entrepreneurial in their problem solving.
In Wales we have entrepreneurship in the curriculum to a certain degree, but are we paying lip service to it? We have a youth entrepreneurship strategy and programs like Enterprise Troopers and the Big Ideas Wales Role Model and Bootcamp which really have impact. But is that impact wide enough? Is it actually given context and meaning by all those who are delivering it within mainstream education? Fostering links within our education system with business of all types is essential. This does not mean that all will become entrepreneurs and business founders, but it does mean that through university and then into employment that we produce a nation of innovators and intrapreneurs - those who drive ideas into production within both private and public sector organisations - ensuring growth in businesses from SME to large corporate and the massive public entities such as Public Health and the NHS. Corporations, both private and public, have problems to solve and need internal teams with the intrapreneurial mindset to solve them and they need to be able to access academia to find the brightest minds to deliver cutting-edge innovation based on cutting-edge research. Academia produces brilliant innovations but is often unable to commercialise those ideas and thus much academic IP remains invisible. Better collaboration between big business, academia and entrepreneurs will surely result in more and better ideas, more and better applications for those ideas, and bigger and better businesses.
The funding community has a massive role to play across the spectrum of business, and funding is a known problem in academia and business - from start-up to SME to Corporate. For an early stage business, however, it is about much more than money. Early-phase CEOs "don't know what they don't know" and whilst support and mentorship can often be provided by support agencies, incubators, and accelerators, there is no substitute for the "been there, seen it, done it, got the T-shirt" experience. This is where our mentor alumni come in: there is a volume of successful business people in Wales with a wealth of experience that needs to be accessed and a huge Welsh diaspora that currently live outside of Wales who are wanting to give back to the future success of Wales.
In Wales we have some extremely forward thinking companies - including the likes of Admiral and IQE - who are at the forefront of their fields on a global level. We have a government that is massively supportive of both innovation and entrepreneurship, witness the formation of the Innovation Advisory Council and the £20M Business Wales Accelerated Growth Programme and the wider Business Wales support activities. We have world leading initiatives in Wales with the Semiconductor Catapult, the GE Healthcare Innovation Village, and the SPARK Innovation Centre lead by Cardiff University. We have brilliant accelerators and incubators for early-stage businesses of the likes of IndyCube, ICE and Entrepreneurial Spark, and some superb sector initiatives such as the Life Sciences Hub and the Electronic and Software Technologies Network (ESTnet).
So many great things are happening, but the challenges remain to make it visible, keep it simple, identify connectivity, and then to communicate and collaborate to drive economic growth. We have all of the pieces of the jigsaw in Wales. If we can put them together and create a coherent picture for all to see and simultaneously grow our economic pillars, the platform that is the economic prosperity of Wales will be raised to new heights.
Can a panel of ten people working on a two-year initiative achieve this? Not in isolation. The REAP team will create visibility, simplicity and connectivity to empower growth and will be engaging widely with the broader ecosystem, including (but not limited to) entrepreneurial networks, SMEs, regionally important companies, anchor companies, universities, incubators and accelerators, industry bodies, funding providers, professional bodies and the Cardiff and Swansea City deal participants. With the wider ecosystem working together it will be the responsibility of all to "be the spark" in accelerating our growth and driving the future economic prosperity of Wales to levels previously not considered possible.
It is a huge challenge and a grand vision, but by working together we can achieve. Innovation-driven entrepreneurship (and intrapreneurship) is the key, and there is no doubt that we will be #TogetherStronger.
Ashley Cooper is chairman of Simply Do Ideas. He is also the founder of Catalyst Growth Partners, Chair of Venturefest Wales, Chair of the Business Wales Accelerated Growth Programme, a REAP panel member, and a founding member of InspireWales.