Seeing Innovation Where it Happens

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As seen in Global Corporate Venturing, November 2015 issue.


Universities are not just seen as a pipeline for talent but "the lab" has now become a model for corporates doing business themselves.

Last month, I joined corporate innovation leaders from Dell, Honda, SanDisk, Citrix, Hyundai, LG, Sony, Samsung, Salesforce, Uber and investors from Silicon Valley and Europe to hear pitches from 60 startups. Our keynoter speakers were technology evangelist Guy Kawasaki and Oracle executive Luke Kowalski.

But this event was a far cry from your typical tech gathering in San Francisco or London. We met in the Old Market Hall and the Slovak Philharmonic Hall in the heart of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia.

Yes, we all know the tech community is global. But my four days in Slovakia in October underscored how far many of us now are willing to travel to experience innovation where it happens. Bill Reichert, managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, explained why he was there. "Innovation has gone global, and the companies here demonstrate that Europe is experiencing a renaissance. Going forward, we all need to learn from each other. European entrepreneurs no longer just copy US startups. We will be stealing ideas from each other. The bridge between Silicon Valley and Europe provides entrepreneurs with a global path, connecting them with customers, talent and capital."

Slovakia provided a most interesting backdrop. It is an example of how even small countries – its population of 5.4 million does not approach the San Francisco Bay area or London – are betting on innovation to grow their economies. Sitting in the middle of central Europe, Slovakia has decided to position itself aggressively as a home for startups, offering a skilled workforce and government incentives.

In June, the Slovak government approved a package of measures to embrace startups by creating a new type of corporate entity to encourage investments, cutting taxes, expanding work visas and even providing financial incentives for startups to make it through their "valley of death" phase.

Slovakia's leading industry group, the Slovakia Business Association, teamed with the US Market Access Centre in Menlo Park to host the event. The startups hailed from all over Europe and beyond – in addition to central Europe, they came from Denmark, Korea, Spain, Italy and Ireland among other places.

Holding up Silicon Valley as a model, we spent a lot of time talking about how business and academia could work together to drive innovation. Corporate and academic representatives, including Ikhlaq Sidhu and Ken Singer from UC Berkeley's Centre for Entrepreneurship & Technology, demonstrated how such relationships spawned some of the world's best-known tech companies.

Corporate representatives described the way they engaged with universities, and how they were changing their way of doing business in the age of startups. Universities are not just seen as a pipeline for talent but "the lab" has now become a model for corporates doing business themselves. In fact, I heard a new term that I love – innovation collider – a place that promotes the collision of people, technology and ideas. And it can happen anywhere. This time it was Bratislava.

What was most different about this event was that we all spent five days together and four evenings out socialising. It made for a much deeper level of engagement than normally experienced. We had the chance to meet the startup founders over several days and offer them advice from many different perspectives.

Many of us were impressed by the quality of the startups, underscoring that innovation knows no borders. Several startups from central Europe focused on cybersecurity solutions, while other European companies offered new ideas for promoting energy efficiency and health-related products. The winning team, from Ireland, is working on wifi optimisation for large corporations. There were fewer consumer internet startups than I would have seen if the event had been in the US or a major European capital. Uber participated in the event, and I learned that the going Uber rate in Bratislava is just €4 for 10 minutes.

I heard that some of the local media published comments from critics of the event expressing concern over its cost. I think the argument may have been laid to rest when an outcome of the event was the US Market Access Centre announcing a $5m investment in the region. Important new relationships were created, and they will not happen if you do not create the environment to showcase talent.

One other point to note – of the 60 startup presenters, only two were women. However, both were acknowledged among the 12 finalists and received distinction awards. Notably, one of the principles shared by Guy Kawasaki for evaluating a startup's model is to "ask a woman". It is impossible not to be frustrated by the lack of progress we are making in this area. However, the women we did see were exceptionally talented.

On leaving Bratislava, a lesson imparted by a Fujitsu Laboratories executive stuck with me. "A lot of the smartest people are outside our company." And, I would add, outside our own countries.


About the Author

Tracy Isacke is head of the vendor transformation office for Silicon Valley Bank. She and her team are responsible for third-party risk management, as well as building relationships with the bank’s most strategic vendors and partners to provide SVB employees with development opportunities, policy information, training, tools, support and guidance to most effectively support business partners across the organization.

Tracy joined SVB in 2014 to develop key corporate innovation partnerships and programs to connect bank clients to potential partners and investors. Before joining SVB, Tracy was an executive vice president, new business ventures, at Telefónica Digital, where she identified investment opportunities in Silicon Valley, Israel and Europe with the potential to accelerate Telefónica’s business. She also led an international global partner team to deliver unique partnerships and direct-to-bill opportunities for Telefónica across 25 operating businesses in Europe and Latin America.

Tracy started her career at Xerox, rising to be one of the first female members of the UK board of directors. Following her work at Xerox, she spent four years with an early-stage, venture-backed startup that went on to achieve a successful exit.

Born in the UK, Tracy has lived in Italy, Israel and California. She lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband and family.