Innovation and Entrepreneurship are a National Imperative for Wales

BeTheSpark Panel member and Chair of Be The Spark CIC, Ashley Cooper of Catalyst Growth Partners, shares his insights on the key pillars for building a thriving ecosystem in Wales driven by innovation, entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship are the cornerstones of any growing economy. It isn’t however sufficient to have great Innovators and great Entrepreneurs. A thriving eco-system requires additional stimulation to ensure that Innovation driven entrepreneurship is alive and well, and that the opportunities within the eco-system are being maximised.

In 2012 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme (REAP). The REAP model identifies 5 key stakeholder groups as being the pillars to support a growing economy. These pillars are;

1) Entrepreneurs;

2) Funders;

3) Universities;

4) Big Business;

5) Government.

If we were to imagine the economy and economic growth as an extremely heavy platform supported by these 5 pillars, then each of these pillars need to equally contribute to supporting and carrying the immense weight of the economic platform, and importantly, in order to raise the platform / grow the economy, each pillar needs to be able to expand at the same rate. With one or more weak pillars or expansion in each pillar that is not uniform, the platform becomes at best tilted or lop-sided, and at worst could ultimately collapse.

“If we are to truly make a difference in Wales we must start with generational change.”

The MIT REAP programme brought together an international cohort of countries or regions who are like minded in wishing to grow their national or regional economy. Cohort 1 featured Scotland amongst the 8 delegate countries along with the likes of New Zealand. Cohort 3 featured 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 (IDE) within their country or region. The opportunity for cross globe and cross cultural learning was immense. We learnt significantly from the natural resource rich countries of Saudi Arabia, Chile and Norway, about the entrepreneurial start-up culture of Israel and Thailand, the growth challenges of China, and the Corporate strength of Japan.

The Wales panel members comprised a group of 10 key influencers from across Wales who represent each of the 5 pillars (2 per pillar). These panel members were united by a common purpose of driving economic growth in Wales and notably pledged their extremely valuable time to the 2-year initiative free of charge – true demonstration that we believe we can make a difference. Given the success of the panel members in their various fields, failure, or the creation of “just another talking shop” or “just another advisory panel” was not an acceptable positioning nor an acceptable outcome.

The REAP Panel has the stated objective of making Innovation and Entrepreneurship a National imperative and are doing this by creating a movement under the banner of “BeTheSpark”. We must join these initiatives together to create Innovation Driven Entrepreneurship (IDE). Unlike some of our fellow international participants who are generally very strong in one or two pillars and perhaps less strong in one or two of the others, Wales has a significant volume and strength of activity in each one of the 5 key “pillars”. The challenge for Wales is that there is so much activity that it is very difficult looking form the outside to see what is going on where and how such activity can benefit the wider eco-system. Much activity happens in silos, and whilst it is not by intent that information sharing is poor, key initiatives often tend to stay within the broad remit of that particular pillar. The first objective of BeTheSpark is therefore to create visibility of what is going on. Some have argued that there are already platforms that share data, but often they are complex in nature and unless you know where to look, difficult to extract data from. Simplicity and ease of use is therefore key, as well as simple signposting to the key activities in each area.

If we are to truly make a difference in Wales we must start with generational change. Yes, it is long term, and yes it will take a generation to see massive results, however it starts in school. Recent educational reports from the likes of Donaldson identify Enterprise as a key element of the curriculum. This is all about “creating agile minds for a changing world” and 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 to the massive public entities such as Public Health and the NHS.

Corporations both private and public have problems to solve. They need internal teams with the “intrapreneurial” mind-set 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 post-doctoral research. Academia produces brilliant innovations however often is unable to commercialise those ideas. Much academic IP remains invisible and un-commercialised. That’s where the budding entrepreneurs come in. 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. We have some strong foundation stones in place but we need to ensure all of the foundations are in place and build upon them.

“…it will be the responsibility of all to “Be The Spark” in accelerating our growth and driving the future economic prosperity…”

The funding community has a massive role to play across the spectrum of business, from start-up to SME to Corporate. Appropriate and available funding is key to driving growth at pace. But where do I go for funding? It’s out there but isn’t visible and isn’t simple to find. Am I investor ready? How do I make myself and my business stand out? What are they really looking for from the founder, manager, director, senior team or CEO?

For an early stage business however it is about much more than money. Early phase CEO’s “don’t know what they don’t know”. Quality support and mentorship is required which is often provided by support agencies, incubators and accelerators. However there is no substitute for “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, there is a huge Welsh diaspora that currently live outside of Wales who are wanting to give back to the future success of Wales. Bringing all of that experience and expertise to bare is essential to accelerated growth.

"There is a volume of successful business people in Wales with a wealth of experience that needs to be accessed…"

In Wales we have some extremely forward thinking companies 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, the £20M Business Wales Accelerated Growth Programme and the wider Business Wales support activities. We have world leading initiatives in Wales with the Semi-Conductor Catapult 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 challenge remains to a) Make it visible; b) Keep it simple; c) 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.

BeTheSpark has started the movement. We are on the journey. On the 28th June, a group of 300 top leaders from across the eco-system came together to ignite the passion and BeTheSpark. The digital platform has been launched in basic form at BeTheSpark.Wales. Over 200 “pledges” have been received with individuals and corporations committing Time, Talent and Treasure (physical and capital) to support the cause. The backbone structure of BeTheSpark is being created and we have started to create the movement which will see the 300 grow to 3000 in the near term.

All elements of the broader eco-system will need to play their part including but not limited to entrepreneurial networks, SMEs, Regionally Important Companies (RICs), Anchor Companies, Universities, Incubators and Accelerators, Industry bodies, funding providers, professional bodies and the Cardiff and Swansea City Deal participants. 

With the wider eco-system working together it will be the responsibility of all to #BeTheSpark in accelerating our national growth and driving the future economic prosperity of Wales to levels previously not considered possible. It is a huge challenge, a grand vision but by working together we can achieve. Innovation Driven Entrepreneurship (& Intrapreneurship) is the key. We need to put self interest aside and collaborate rather than competing in building community. There is no doubt that by working together we will be richer together. #BeTheSpark