Innovation – Rotterdam invites us all to visit

Author: George Mangion 
Published on Malta Today 21st February 2018

The proof of the pudding is in the eating and it is fair to say that the island is not maximising benefits from the Cornucopia of creativity that one expects once parts of its scattered ecology are wired to function as one whole platform. Granted that Malta suffers from a number of handicaps – such as the small size of population, lack of mineral resources and its geographical location that is not forming part of the European mainland. Still the potential for superior growth is blowing in the wind. We have achieved a lot since Independence just 53 years ago and are proud to witness the transformation of a “fortress” economy to one based on industry, tourism, financial services and a growing range of new sectors such as iGaming, aviation, films, registration of ships and maritime engineering.

This healthy mix of economic pillars at play is testament to the versatility of its trained workforce and the millions invested in free education starting from kindergarten up to tertiary education.  English is spoken everywhere.

Although conventional thinking would dictate otherwise, it is wise to fulfil our obligation to the next generation by moving away from kneejerk political partisanship towards a longer view that embraces opportunities for collaborative policymaking. It can and must start now, to ensure we extend uninterrupted economic growth by nurturing a start-up ecosystem that allows new enterprises to emerge and drive novel opportunities. As a young nation, our potential is limitless.

Malta boasts an abundance of young, smart individuals and a relaxed lifestyle which annually attracts over two million tourists to share it. We have an ever-deepening relationship with our neighbours in the European powerhouse around which our share of regional EU economic prosperity will be reaped. Over the decades our finance ministers coming from both political parties had waxed lyrical over the need to advocate the birth of innovation and they have tempted us with reaching the Holy Grail of excellence by attracting overseas talent apart from training thousands of graduates at MCAST and University.

Granted that we need more graduates qualifying at PhD level, particularly those who specialise in science subjects. To rationalise such an objective, can we attempt a new approach to raise significant capital to enable start-up businesses turn far-fetched ideas into economic and commercial reality? We can achieve this by persuading more early school leavers to take vocational classes in technical subjects now provided by MCAST. More women are to be attracted to return to work as at the moment the percentage of trained women who stop working is higher than the EU average.

Government had devised the Individual investor programme to attract talent from the best and brightest, from across the globe targeted at “on-shoring” entrepreneurial talent to team with local talent in developing and promoting our next big ideas. Our Achilles heel is our failure to generate co-operation between research, business in private sector to synergise with University/MCAST on commercialisation —ideally transforming ideas into reality.

How can we learn from the success of advanced economies such as that of Boston USA which has a rich endowment arising from superlative knowledge garnered by the combined presence of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge? This is formidable. Having created the systems and attracted the talent necessary to develop ground breaking intellectual property, universities such as Harvard and MIT have engineered sophisticated systems in place to commercialise innovations.

These include robust mechanisms for licensing new technologies to third-party companies that can help to build businesses around those ideas, and for working with investors and other groups.

Three years ago, a PKF team visited both MIT and Cambridge Innovation Centre (CIC) in Boston USA. These are situated close to Kendall Square and the team was impressed by the synergy of various start-ups at CIC consisting of many disciplines such as science, engineering, digital commerce, medical instruments, Nano technology and life-sciences studies. Kendall Square is a unique location where members of the Boston innovation ecosystem can literally bump into each other in the overflowing offices CIC – and in the associated non-profit Venture Café, where tenants, external entrepreneurs and others can mingle and learn.

CIC was founded in 1999 as a commercial co-working space, and now houses about 850 companies. Many of those firms are technology and life sciences start-ups working alongside venture capitalists (representing funds with some US$7 billion in assets under management) and service providers such as accountants, lawyers and bankers. According to CIC founder Tim Rowe, physical proximity matters because people only really come to trust each other after they’ve met face to face on several occasions.

“If you’re going to put your idea and your time into a project, you have to trust the other people,” he says. “Otherwise you’re basically not going to do it because it’s a big risk to your reputation and your finances.” Rowe believes that policymakers, businesses and others with an interest in innovation should think in terms of cities, which allow for the concentration of money, ideas and talent in areas small enough for individuals to meet and develop that crucial level of trust.

Even within cities, he argues it’s ideal to focus on individuals within smaller areas such as Kendall Square or even a single office tower, as he is doing with CIC. “The easiest thing to do to build innovation in a city is to put all your strongest people together in one spot,” he says. “It’s like when you’re lighting a fire. You don’t spread the sticks around.

As an example, one can mention the “Go Boston 2030” campaign which is intended to help design Boston’s future transport system, which had already gained input from 5,000 citizens. Back to Malta we expect our decision makers to create – or continue to build on – areas that foster connectivity within the innovation ecosystem.

Sometimes this can be achieved through simple matters – like having more cafés and public meeting spaces that make it easy for innovators to connect thus increasing the support for growth of facilities such as live music venues – that make areas more fun and creative for the younger professionals who often drive innovation.

To conclude Malta’s future commercial success will largely depend on making the right connections between the disparate elements of its innovation infrastructure.

George Mangion

Author: George Mangion 
Published on Malta Today 21st February 2018
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