The Way I See It… by Michael C. Volker
Entrepreneurship is the weakest link
Everyone is jumping on the innovation bandwagon. The commercialization of technology is a hot subject at several conferences I’ve attended in the past few months. Innovation is seen as being the key to improving Canada’s productivity gap in comparison to the U.S.
At a recent Industry Canada presentation, I learned that one of the goals of Canada’s innovation strategy was to triple commercialization outcomes at Canadian universities while doubling the investment in research and development by 2010.
The May, 2002 Innovation Summit conference in Vancouver identified various inhibitors to the innovation process. A business-friendly environment, competitive taxes and de-regulation, better access to education, increased R&D spending, better management and more venture capital and improved access to early stage venture funding are the commonly cited success factors.
Most will agree that innovation is a creative process. It is also one that entails substantial risk. No amount of capital, education, tax reduction or management talent can produce a successful venture without one key ingredient: entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurs are the champions of innovation. They are the ones who build the bridges, i.e. the new ventures that turn inventions into viable commercial products. This requires an intense personal commitment of time, money and reputation. Some innovative companies, for example 3M Corporation, have done well by encouraging corporate entrepreneurship, i.e. intrapreneurship.
We’ve heard the stories about risktaking and failure in places such as Silicon Valley. Indeed, “failures” don’t exist. They are merely “learning experiences”. I haven’t seen the same attitude here in Canada. If your company flops, you’ll have a tough time getting backers for a second deal.
Talk to entrepreneurs and investors and you’ll discover this paradox: the entrepreneurs seeking financing say that there isn't an ample pool of capital and investors claim that there's not an adequate supply of good deals. On the other hand, I've yet to see a really great start-up business not get funded. The fact is that “good” people behind a great opportunity will always find investors.
I subscribe to Michael Gerber’s “E-Myth” theory which states that many people who think that they are entrepreneurs are not really entrepreneurs. They are technicians suffering from an entrepreneurial seizure. He says that just because someone may be vocationally or technically good at doing something does not mean that they will be good at running a business doing those things.
Venture capitalists will often insist on bringing in or recruiting proven managers to run a venture. That makes good sense but it’s not sufficient. You still need the entrepreneurial zeal. You can teach an entrepreneur how to manage but I’m not convinced that you can turn a manager into an entrepreneur.
Across North America, I’ve observed the creation – mainly on University campuses – of centers for Entrepreneurship. Some, such as the University of Washington which I recently visited, focus on technology entrepreneurship. UW’s Venture Creation Lab takes teams of students, supported by external mentors, investors and entrepreneurs, to work on the task of identifying and commercializing new intellectual properties. These are an intense form of start-up boot camp for entrepreneurs. In this process, the real entrepreneurs will surface while others will discover the E-Myth truism.
Happily, many Canadian institutions are responding to this need by establishing such centers. We’re fortunate in that we’ve now got quite a few Canadian success stories to boast about. Hopefully, some of the entrepreneurs behind these successes will see fit to personally support these centers as mentors and coaches.
Entrepreneurs are goal oriented. They know their weaknesses and these centers will help them to address these shortcomings by helping them to team up with others or by providing them with coaching or management training.
The way I see it, we need new initiatives to nurture and promote entrepreneurship. Most importantly, we need to make entrepreneurship part of our high technology culture. We need more entrepreneurs. This is the weakest link in the proverbial innovation chain.
Michael Volker is a high technology entrepreneur and director of Simon Fraser U's University/Industry Liaison Office. He runs Vancouver’s Angel Technology Network and is Chairman of the BC Advanced Systems Institute and past- chair of the Vancouver Enterprise Forum. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.