April 26th, 2018

Startup's most beloved friend: Innovation Ecosystems

Last month, Wonderland moved to Dok Noord. A collection of massive industrial buildings that still have the looks – and sometimes the smell – of what they once were built to be: an affiliate of ACEC, the famous electricity factory from Charleroi.

Today, the massive old buildings are still showing off proudly on the edge of the Ghent docks, but the atmosphere has totally changed. Where once the electricity engines roared loud over the city, with hundreds of employees running around to get their strictly defined tasks done in time – we are now surrounded by 3 hipster coffee bars, 12 co-working areas and 21 startup founders on skateboards.

If it feels like Silicon Valley? Of course not. We might have our offices filled with numerous exotic plants, but the big investors are not here. The million dollar companies have already outgrown this area. Still – if you actually walk into one of those hipster coffee bars after all – you hear entrepreneurs openly talk about their new product ideas and new company models, even if the idea is just very early-stage and many would advise them to shut up and keep things secret for now.

Instead of hiding, we use the collective knowledge of our network

The business has changed, entrepreneurs don’t hide their ideas anymore after expensive IP. They share them with each other and use the input of everybody they can speak, call or see at the skateboard field. Companies are not housing together anymore for mainly practical reasons (reception, administration, transportation, catering). Startups are now housing together to make use of the collective intelligence of their co-housers in the building - and so - also using their co-housers’ network. Why would you research the same product assumptions, your neighbor did already 3 years ago? Say hi to startups’ most beloved friend: The innovation ecosystem.   

The power of innovation ecosystems & more current catch phrases

The term ‘ecosystem’ is not new. It was introduced by the English botanist Arthur Tansley in 1935 and referred to a system that was formed by organisms and populations with a certain form of interaction in a geographically defined area. Some decades ago, famous economists – of which we don’t want to remember the name - linked this to a whole new concept: the ‘innovation ecosystem’ or ‘entrepreneurship ecosystem’. They stated that we should approach entrepreneurship in ecosystems totally different. Where in traditional markets, entrepreneurship depends on a well-functioning business climate – in ecosystems, the business climate is empowered by entrepreneurship. So, in case of market failures and crises, entrepreneurship will not be blocked. Instead, there will be more employment, competitiveness, growth and a possible higher prosperity level. Sounds more like something to remember, no?  

The theory outgrown the books. Current catch phrases like ‘incubators’, ‘angel networks’, ‘crowdfunding’, ‘accelerators’, ‘business plan competitions’ and ‘hackathons’, usually disappointed when you conduct them in isolation. When they do work, it is because of the existence of a comprehensive ecosystem that supports growth entrepreneurship. Time for us to build them!

Eco-3

About CEO titels & building successful innovation ecosystems

At the beginning of 2017, we were asked to lay the foundations of a new innovation ecosystem, called ‘Hangar K’ in Kortrijk. The aim was to stimulate entrepreneurship in the region and transform the brain drain into brain gain, fostering employment and the creation of a vibrant community of millennial entrepreneurs.

When building this kind of ecosystems, it is easy to focus on the hard factors that are visible: the ‘coolness’ of the products the internal startups are producing, the average employee age, the amount of Facebook likes, the invested capital, the digital infrastructure etc. However, it is mainly the soft and connecting factors that ensure that people actually co-create together and turn their ideas into action.

Screenshot-2018-03-22_15-16-18

An example of such a soft factor can be the CEO of such an ecosystem. Entrepreneurs don’t like to listen to their boss – why else would they call themselves entrepreneurs? They listen and learn the best form other entrepreneurs. So, when you put somebody in charge of an ecosystem, don’t call him/her ‘the CEO’ but ‘the connector’. He should be a successful, communicative facilitator who acts like a trigger and brings businesses and governments together. A good connector encourages the ecosystem’s companies to have a holistic view, to not focus too much on personal short term returns. He doesn’t just organize cocktail parties, but rather helps them in sharing knowledge, promoting initiatives and makes sure questions are picked up fast and deposited with the right people with the right entrepreneurial experience.

Innovators

Another soft factor example is mutual trust. Although many companies in ecosystems can be competitors and some of their operations will overlap, it is advised to introduce them in your business process as fast as possible, in order to minimize your R&D and production time. To keep things clear, frequent communication can help to identify where those overlaps are and in what direction the others are going. There is no reason in eliminating those overlaps, in fear of client-picking. All parties should know what their strengths are and work in harmony towards the common goal of growing the ecosystem. It is like we said before: if the ecosystem is both competitive, collaborative and mutually dependent, crises can be overcome, since every company benefits form the survival of the ecosystem.  


A framework to set up a physical ecosystem in one year

Today – March ‘18 – we look back at a one year track, building the innovation ecosystem in Kortrijk: Hangar K, Flanders youngest co-creation hub.

Wonderland was engaged as creative innovation partner from the very start, to speed up the realization of this new concept. On a 2-weekly base, we organized steering and workgroup meetings, in which we captured and visualized the acquired knowledge of the different stakeholders, determining the ‘to do's’ and schedule for the coming weeks. We created a clear organizational vision and mission, conducted a regional opportunity analysis, developed the inspiration mood boards that lay the basis for architectural plans & made first contacts with potential suppliers and partners. After highlighting the possible project failures, we created a financial plan through in-depth scenario planning.

As this article is only getting longer and your attention span is only getting shorter, we’ll summarize all essential steps we took to go from idea to ecosystem in the figure below.

If you are interested in creating a new ecosystem yourself, just do it the ecosystem-way and have a chat with us in one of those new hipster coffee bars in Dok Noord. Or maybe in Hangar K itself, as the opening is planned next month?

Hangar-K

Let us co-create innovation.

If you want to go fast – go alone. If you want to go far – go together.