Creating companies is not all there is to innovation ecosystems and entrepreneurship

Published On: 22 February 2022|

There is far more to having a functional innovation ecosystem than just supporting the creation of business ventures, Ms Jaci Barnett, an expert from the Oxentia Ltd team and Head of Consulting Services at Oxford University Innovation, told a gathering of academics and professionals involved in entrepreneurship development at South Africa’s universities, last week.

Leading the seminar titled The Importance of Innovation Ecosystems, Ms Barnett (left) outlined a broader picture of innovation ecosystems and the role of entrepreneurship development beyond just starting businesses.  This was at the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Programme’s first dedicated attempt at equipping academics and other professionals with strategies to translate research into innovation and commercialisation of products and services. The workshop was funded by the British Council and facilitated by experts from Oxentia Ltd, Oxford’s Global Innovation Consultancy. The workshop aimed to bridge the gap between research, innovation and commercialisation that has, for years, been a matter of concern to South Africa’s higher education institutions.

In the opening, Ms Barnett reminded the audience that knowledge production at universities was, from the 1940s, initially divorced from impact. That changed to a linear model of innovation, where knowledge produced from universities was transferred to industry (“technology-push”) and then to trying to understand what industry wanted and produce it (“demand-pull”). However, innovation is not linear and involves collaboration and support from other stakeholders. Thus, the concept of the National Innovation System (NSI) was born, a ‘complex institutional landscape with flows of technology, linkages and connections between the actors that can make a societal impact.

However, many academics struggle to understand how they fit into the NSI, and how they can make an impact from their research. This is partly because research production and impact are so far apart – research outputs go through knowledge exchange channels into the hands of users which, then, subject to many other factors, may eventually create an impact. Ms Barnett emphasised that there were many knowledge exchange channels (see model below) and multiple forms of impact: “Academics use multiple channels to make an impact, from outreach to consultancy, to licensing and venture creation. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that venture creation is just one way to make an impact”.

She suggested that an understanding of the innovation ecosystem in which the researcher or university operates can help researchers understand how they can make an impact from their research. Bringing with her over a decade of experience in research, commercialisation, and tech transfer in both South Africa and the UK, she said researchers who understand the key players in their ecosystem, their roles, resource capacity and the enabling environment can more purposefully drive their research outputs. “If you do not do that, then you are going to find it too complex and overwhelming; in other words, you will be trying to be all things to all people,” she cautioned.

The innovation system model (displayed above) was developed by MIT for local innovation ecosystems and was a useful one to start with, although she acknowledged there were several models that could be used. It starts with the core purpose of what the user is trying to achieve, and then has the minimum number of categories needed to fully explain the ecosystem and identify gaps.  Actors include businesses, networks, community-based and non-profit organisations, universities, funders, and government. These actors play roles in the innovation ecosystem that need to be identified – they include innovation, connecting, celebrating, advocacy, funding, sharing knowledge, training, convening and facilitating.

She reiterated that it was far more crucial to have all the roles represented in the ecosystem than having all actors. “Having the actors is great, but a lot of problems arise when you do not have all the roles or when some actors are simply not doing their part, leading to a disconnect in the ecosystem and dysfunctionality,” she said. This is what has changed the ecosystem in Bristol, where she previously worked. In 2017, when she joined the University, roles were missing in the venture creation ecosystem, and the ecosystem was working but not flourishing.  Once those roles were filled by various actors, the ecosystem started flourishing and it is now one of the most exciting places to start a business in the UK.

There are two further aspects of an ecosystem that should be considered: the quality and availability of resources, such as the natural environment, human capital, infrastructure and so on; and the enabling environment which includes the market system and supply chains, and the regulatory and policy context such as intellectual property laws.

Ms Barnett concluded her seminar by posing three questions to the participants to help them analyse their own ecosystem. She also again emphasised understanding the purpose of one’s innovation ecosystem before they attempt to analyse it, as this will change the actors and roles one needs, the resources one requires, as well as the importance of the enabling environment.

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa.