Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Ecosystem Empowers Entrepreneurship & Innovation Which Powers Economic Growth

Domains of the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem - Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project

This week, the Minneapolis Convention Center was the venue for two very different annual events that illustrate the power of an ecosystem to foster entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth. On Wednesday and Thursday, Life Science Alley hosted Minnesota Medtech Week – speeches, panels, an exposition, and networking opportunities attended by “more than 5,000 business leaders, entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and suppliers, gathered under one roof to share solutions and gain valuable insights.”

Then on Friday, WomenVenture held its annual fund-raising luncheon celebrating women entrepreneurs.  This is an organization for entrepreneurs at the other end of the spectrum from the med tech ventures – “unbankable” female founders of lifestyle businesses who start out with few business skills and little to no access to capital.  The stories shared during the event are inspiring, but the really awesome thing is to look across the ballroom at the sea of thousands of (primarily) women executives and entrepreneurs who have gathered to support the organization’s mission.

These events publically illustrate the richness of the Twin Cities ecosystem across the spectrum entrepreneurship and innovation.  Here at MIN-Corps, we also experience the unheralded private richness of our ecosystem.  Just a few examples:

  • the amazing mentors who – having experienced success as entrepreneurs, inventors, corporate executives and/or investors – now make themselves available to advise and create connections for  faculty researchers participating in the U of MN Medical Technology Value Proposition workshops and students in the STARTUP course
  • the IP litigator from a major law firm who cheerfully agrees to a late-notice lecture and conversation on intellectual property with our program participants
  • the graduates from our programs who regularly return to share their experiences with current participants

A recent article in the Star Tribune recently featured an interview with the founder of Kipsu, a fast-growing startup that was a finalist in the high tech division of this year’s Minnesota Cup venture competition.  This is a former venture capitalist who is choosing not to seek venture capital.  In other words, you don’t need to imitate a Silicon Valley firm to be a successful software venture.

It all comes down to what an entrepreneurship-friendly ecosystem really is, which is what BEEP (Babson Entrepreneurship Education Project) has been researching.  About five years ago, they published early findings. Their first two pieces of advice: (1) Stop emulating Silicon Valley. (2) Shape the ecosystem around local conditions. In other words, build out from your strengths.  

About a year ago, BEEP published additional thoughts:  First, entrepreneurs in all the locations they’ve studied complain about access to talent, excessive bureaucracy, and scarce early stage capital, so other factors must distinguish foster more or less entrepreneurship.  BEEP also talks about how certain commonly advocated factors are not necessarily indicative of a healthy environment, such as lots of startups, coworking spaces, or (sigh) entrepreneurship education. 

Wikipedia has a nice summary of what constitutes a healthy entrepreneurship ecosystem.  It:
  •  is tailored around its own unique environment – it does not seek to be something it isn’t, like the “next Silicon Valley”
  • operates in an environment with reduced bureaucratic obstacles in which government policies support the unique needs of entrepreneurs and tolerate failed ventures
  • actively encourages and invites financiers to participate in new venture
  • is reinforced, not created from scratch, by government, academic or commercial organizations
  • is relatively free from, or is able to change the cultural biases against failure or operating a business
  • promotes successes, which in turn attract new ventures
  • is supported by dialogue among various of the entrepreneurship stakeholders
So, what’s special about the Twin Cities entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem? It’s not great at all of the above, but there are multiple strong elements. The Minneapolis-St Paul metro area makes a lot of top-ten US Cities lists, and just this week came out on top of a kind of meta-list, edging out Portland OR, Denver and Austin. Lot of corporate national and regional headquarters and a diversified economy, which lead to low unemployment and a softer landing if a venture fails.  Reasonable cost of living, high quality of life, parks, cultural amenities, professional sports.  An educated workforce thanks to strong K-12 schools, lots of colleges, and a top-ranked public research university in the center of the metropolitan area.

But it’s also about the soft stuff.  The generosity. The friendliness. The openness.  Today, MIN-Corps participants are beneficiaries of this ecosystem that nurtures entrepreneurship and innovation.  In the future, they’ll continue to enrich it.