An ambitious roadmap to innovation

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today 12th January 2016

It was in February 2006 when the government of Malta announced the start of framework discussions with Tecom Investments of Dubai on setting up a new ‘SmartCity@Malta’.  It was baptised to become the largest ever source of knowledge-based jobs in Malta.

Tecom, a Gulf Arab company, was expected as part of the deal to undertake an investment of approximately US$300 million over eight years. This project would also be accompanied by state-of-the-art design and development of the site with modern offices, a hotel, an Olympic sized Laguna, villas and other public amenities to attract knowledge-based operations.

Due to the recession that hit the global markets in 2007/8 the project was substantially scaled down. Roughly 30% of the entire project was erected surrounded by a magnificent seawater Laguna which is served with a colourful display of water jets – all dancing to synchronized music.

Alas the dream of the ICT gem has still to become reality while the government, being a minority shareholder, is doing its utmost to relocate some of its agencies to best utilize vacant spaces. Rumour has it that more than 70% of the office space (as reduced) has been allocated to various tenants while one hopes that more capital is invested to continue building more office blocks and residential units originally targeted for completion in 2014. Officially it is not clear what is the percentage of ICT tenants registered and it is doubtful that the original target rate of 56% set by Tecom has been reached.

Regardless of the setbacks, one lauds this initiative which 10 years ago sowed the seeds to build a city sporting an innovative ICT hub with related specializations and job creation potential. This was to be housed under one roof located in a congenial site sharing pristine sea views at Ricasoli – only 10 minutes away from the airport.  Sadly, our contribution as a nation to R&D as a percentage of GDP is one of the lowest in the EU and in this context this saga brings me to the main topic of this article. It starts with a recount of a pioneering trip last year by a delegation from PKF which visited Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA to explore links to promote Malta as a potential ICT and/or Life Sciences hub for innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs.

The visit was undertaken with the co-operation of Malta Enterprise which offered the services of a technical representative based in New York – although each party catered for its own expenses. It is interesting to note that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a private research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded in 1861 – then built in response to the increasing industrialization of the United States.  Its annual budget exceeds $700 million and it is currently in the process of building a massive extension to house a new nanotechnology research hub.

The uniqueness of MIT is in its appetite for problem solving – especially those intractable technical problems whose solutions make a tangible difference.  Needless to say, that with its supportive campus environment it houses an incredible number of talented students and as part of its diversity and its intensely creative atmosphere, both the arts and science flourish in all their forms.

It is no stranger to accolades – rated as the world’s best university in chemistry, economics, linguistics, materials sciences, nanotechnology and astronomy. It goes without saying that this impressive learning institution is the pride of the American intelligentsia and other advanced countries (such as Singapore) have regularly invested in its development since the sixties to partake of its overflowing chalice of innovation and cutting-edge research.

Another interesting landmark is the Boston-based Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) founded in 1999 and located in Kendall Square. This houses more than 1,000 companies in close to 50,000 square metres of premium office and co-working space across eight facilities, including its most recent expansion in St. Louis, Missouri and now Miami. A number of high-¬profile companies know their baptism at CIC – including HubSpot, which now employs over 1,100 people, and raised $125 million through its IPO last October, and Greatpoint Energy, which several years ago announced a $1.25 billion deal to build reactors in China.

Additionally, Android co¬-founder Rich Miner built his unique Google Android software. Rich established Google’s New England headquarters there. CIC also has a non-profit sister, the Venture Cafe Foundation (this provides a Forum for venture capitalists to scout and help fund new talent).

What is so special about CIC?  The answer is that as an innovation hub it succeeded to attract world class start-ups which proved very supportive for the US economy through the generation of premium jobs and its high value added inventions. The motto at CIC is to create a relaxed yet professional environment in an area where talent seems to congregate and flourish. Having toured some of its offices and laboratories, staff from PKF were impressed by the number of dedicated entrepreneurs who work hard to seek the proverbial Alchemist Stone.

CIC offers a number of user options and caters for different applicant types starting from single user, or a founder with some employees or a company with 200 people. The founder of CIC recently finalised a deal to open another start-up hub in Rotterdam, the Netherlands – the first of its kind outside of the US. The Centre will house 550 innovative companies and build upon CIC’s international community of entrepreneurs, investors, and established businesses.

Rotterdam was chosen as an ideal location. Empirical studies indicate it is a city situated in a very central location just one hour’s flight south of Amsterdam, a “footstep” away from the Belgian border and really close to other European hubs like London, Paris or Cologne. Like Malta, the Dutch population are fluent in English and pride themselves to be a melting pot of different cultures. The ambition of Tim Rowe, the founder of CIC, is to bridge across continents and in a quest to fuse innovation outside USA starting in Europe.

Back to Malta, one can rejoice that the concept of an innovation Centre in Smart City which as stated earlier was a pipe dream 10 years ago, can with some imagination and a suave political foresight be reengineered to house a mini CIC in the centre of the Mediterranean. As a minimum, our future economy can aspire to welcome a number of major R&D private sector companies and no doubt will complement the active Life Sciences block – now with a respectable number of quality tenants.  Only so can we attract international business to exploit top end R&D and with government support lead to the attraction of international talent.

It is not an easy journey and many countries want to emulate the commercial success of Boston, New York and Silicon Valley over the past 50 years. Can our country, albeit small and lacking indigenous materials, rise to the occasion and surf gloriously over this tide of opportunity? No doubt it will cement the collective faculties of our universities, technical institutes and medical schools to produce cutting edge research particularly in ecology, nanotechnology and bioscience products. Embarking on this ambitious roadmap will shine a light to guide us on a dark journey at the end of which we can be able to secure GDP growth and improve our competitiveness level.

Author: George Mangion
Published on Malta Today 12th January 2016
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