Colin Graham, Causeway Innovation

Regardless of who takes the lead, what are the first steps in developing an innovation ecosystem?

It’s a little bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation in terms of the place and the people. I would normally start with the people, the existing entrepreneurs. In many regions, entrepreneurs are hard at work building their own businesses, engaged with customers across the world but with little awareness or interaction with other entrepreneurs or service providers in their own back yard.

My suggestions for the first few steps of building an innovation ecosystem are:

1. Identify and boost the visibility of key people

  • Start with a list of the top 20 or 30 entrepreneurs in the region. This can be done through local knowledge, a web search or an advanced search on Linkedin etc.
  • Produce a simple hardcopy or online directory or map of entrepreneurs
  • Many websites aimed at building an entrepreneurial community miss a trick by not listing or profiling the entrepreneurs in the region. Some provide a list of businesses, but it just as important to profile the people

2. Build a community and trust via a well connected network of entrepreneurs and service providers

  • Business events can build the profile of local entrepreneurs and provide a regular forum to bring people together, Meetup is a great platform to bring people together and build a network
  • More informal dinners – such as those run by the Entrepreneurial Exchange in Scotland promote peer learning and build relationships
  • Use online networks and mapping tools, but face to face contact comes first

3. Develop support structures

  • Promote business incubators and co-working spaces
  • Build connections of key service providers – e.g. legal, IP, accountants – with valuable knowledge and networks
  • Create a network or panel of mentors: entrepreneurial individuals who are willing to put something back and increase the odds of success of a new venture
  • Facilitate investor connections, e.g. via pitch forums, angel groups and investor ready coaching

4. Build a buzz and profile for the region

  • Share the success stories, you can build the profile of the region as an innovation hotspot by helping leading entrepreneurs get noticed, Silicon Prairie News does a good job in this area
  • Create an major event that gets the region noticed:
    • Big Omaha is pitched as the nations most fabulous conference on innovation and entrepreneurship and – in its 5th year – now attracts over 600 delegates
    • Startup Iceland also run an annual conference to help develop local entrepreneurs, link them with the world and build the collective strength of the community.
    • Margaret River in Western Australia runs Emergence as a creative festival for digital businesses
    • Get social: use websites and social media to build the community and spread the word

These four steps are a great start in building an innovation ecosystem.