By Dennis Posadas
WITH the rise of institutions like the UP Ayala Technohub (a Silicon Valley-like enclave at the UP Diliman campus) and Filipinos like Dado Banatao (hardware/semiconductors) and Winston Damarillo (open source software), one would think that we are on our way to developing a local Silicon Valley-type environment like Beijing’s Zhongguancun district or India’s Bangalore. It is nice to talk and dream about these things, especially since we have a lot of technopreneurs in ICT, in telecoms, in software, hardware and other technologies. But as Kevin Costner said in the movie Field of Dreams, “if you build it they will come.” By it, we mean an ecosystem for innovation.
First we need a source of innovation. Typically, it can come from universities like UP, government R&D labs, private corporations that have research arms, or even individuals. The problem sometimes with innovation that comes from corporations that do research, as in the case of Route 128 in Boston, Massachusetts in the 60’s and 70’s, is that oftentimes these are confidential research. No wonder, it is research done for the advancement of the business, and not some altruistic “blue sky” research.
On the other hand, universities oftentimes engage in extremely theoretical research, because their aim is primarily knowledge creation. “Publish or perish” is the credo often heard in the academe, and to do research with business overtones has traditionally been viewed as a sellout to the establishment. So here you have two extremes, pulling scientists and engineers towards the two ends of the spectrum. Another source of innovation are the government R&D institutions like the DoST ASTI, which has developed the Bayanihan Linux operating system for example.
But where the middle ground falls is when academe and industry meet. It can be when a pharmaceutical company works with the chemistry or biology departments to do drug discovery and testing. Or when an electronics or semiconductor company works with the engineering and physics departments to develop some products or manufacturing and testing procedures. Both have actually happened here to some extent; when I was with the local chip industry, we did some collaborative research with schools like UP Diliman. It hasn’t quite reached the extent that it has in schools like MIT and Stanford, but hopefully this will continue and develop further.
So assuming the technology has been developed, and it is commercialized, you now have to contend with intellectual property issues. In the US, the Bayh-Dole Act made it possible for federally funded research to be commercialized by the grant recipient institution.
Locally, a Technology Transfer Act is being pushed to allow the same to happen here. But you have culture issues to contend with. Some private schools for example, like Ateneo and DLSU, seem to have developed a culture of entrepreneurship that goes well with their science training. For schools like UP, although there have been successful technopreneurs like the late Peter Valdes (co-founder of the Austin, Texas based Tivoli Systems that was acquired by IBM), the culture of technopreneurship is just starting to take root.
Then you of course have the issues with business training and finance, which are not often taught to science and engineering majors. Complicating issues further is the fact that the business schools and the science/engineering schools do not really mingle well together.
So you have the typical “toyo and patis” business ideas from the business schools, while just a few meters away the science and engineering majors try to figure out what business they can build out of the technology products that they have developed. Sometimes all it takes is for people to talk and build relationships and teams, but sometimes that is the hardest thing to do, especially if the business majors feel that the engineers and scientists are all geeks, and the other party feels that the other side knows nothing. That kind of mentality doesn’t really help get us forward. Although I heard that in UP Diliman, they are now starting to try to break these barriers.
Let’s see how far they can go with that. Some people claim that you need fancy incubators to launch technology startups. They can help, but some really famous startups like Apple and Microsoft didn’t start from incubators. They got launched in garages, and in whatever place where people could setup shop and start developing and selling their products.
It also helps if you can get experienced people to mentor you. After all, where would Apple be if the young Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak never met the experienced Intel marketing executive Mark Markulla. This tradition of mentorship, of experienced technopreneurs and venture capitalists helping out young people with bright ideas, has been taken to the fore in Silicon Valley. Can it work here? We need to build the culture to do that. Of course we can’t leave out the lawyers. We need people who can help our local innovators protect their patents, but at the same time we have to be careful that we do not stifle legitimate innovation because everyone is suing everybody for patent infringement.
Some people talk about angel and venture capital, and concepts like technology s-curves, adoption-diffusion, crossing the chasm, and other fancy terms used by technopreneurs and venture capitalists. But let’s start with the basics. If we want to start our own little Silicon Valley here, for lack of space maybe here is a quick menu how we can do it:
1) Fund the schools and staff them with really bright young faculty, and try to pay them well if they do well. Reward innovation;
2) Try to get the business majors and the engineering/science majors to spend time together, maybe in joint classes on innovation. Have the business majors take up some basic science subjects and have the science/engineering majors take up some basic finance and accounting subjects. Have them work together on joint projects. For example, the science/engineering majors can develop the product and manufacturing strategy, and the business majors can develop the business strategy for the technology product. Right now, they all work separately;
3) Invite some local experienced technology entrepreneurs and investors to sit in, and perhaps judge the ideas. Maybe if they like what the teams are proposing, they will step in with their checkbooks and their advice;
Obviously the way to do it is a bit more complicated that what I’ve spelled out in this oped, but I’ve laid out the basics. We all need to start somewhere. The important learning is that it starts with brilliant minds interacting with experienced people in business and investors. Maybe all it takes is a little creativity in bringing all these people and their ideas together.
Dennis Posadas is the author of Jump Start: A Technopreneurship Fable (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009) and Rice & Chips: Technopreneurship and Innovation in Asia (Singapore: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007)