Have you ever been to a hack? No, we’re not blogging about horses or analysts! Hacks are about start-ups and how big companies can solve big problems (at a gallop). I went to a hack a few weeks ago, and it was an eye-opener, signaling how large corporates accelerate good ideas from the edge of their organizations into their center. In my view, this is how game-changing innovation gets done in the era of modern work.
Cognizant sponsored an “urban innovation” hack in Zurich Switzerland. It took place at Kraftwerk, previously a dirty fossil fuel power station and now transformed into a slick, cool meeting place for start-ups and corporates alike to drop in and work—think wall to wall Ercol, hipsters, a lively café bar and meeting rooms carved out of shipping containers. The hack’s organizers invited six start-ups to participate as well as a bunch of Swiss politicians’ eager to demonstrate the country’s credentials as an evergreen destination for corporate innovation. Switzerland is well known as a global center for R&D investment, with a large cohort of multi-national firms benefiting from Switzerland’s first-class technical universities, research institutions, and tax write-downs. And Zurich in particular, is on a short list of places that companies consider when planning a new research facility in fields such as computer science, material science, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Disney, Google, and IBM all have invested in research centers there. Novartis, Hoffmann La Roche and Biogen, representing the pharmaceutical and biotechnology fields, also have invested in large labs there. As a sign of Switzerland’s success, R&D expenditure per capita is the highest in the world. But recent signs suggest that Switzerland is losing its wallet share of global innovation spending. Yes, the innovation drum is getting louder, but it’s also changing beat.
Switzerland needs to do a better attracting a new type of organic, grass-roots innovation typified by the raft of start-ups found in many other countries around the world. It needs to double down and build a new, start-up friendly eco-system, because if you were a promising young start-up with the world at your feet where would you want to build and scale your company? Zurich, with its eye-watering living costs or somewhere else where talented people can afford to live? If the country wants to maintain is place as a center for world-class innovation then its need to do a better job attracting start-ups.
To give my argument some context, Google recently opened a dedicated machine learning research center for Europe in Zurich. The center will research ways to improve the infrastructure surrounding machine learning (iterative workflows, better graphical processing, next gen data archiving, storage, etc.), improve natural language processing, as well as building a library of practical use cases. For the center to work (in my opinion), it needs the interplay of good ideas inside and outside the company. The center needs to be in proximity to an ecosystem of like-minded people that can spur creativity and co-creation because of the clustering of talent and ideas in one place. Even with today’s globally accessible data and communication capabilities, there are aspects of innovation and knowledge transfer that blend in a specific location, and some aspects of knowledge that are non-communicable. Not everyone is willing to document their research or ideas or make them open and available. But what they like to do is talk about it with their peers. And this where meet-ups and start-ups can provide a catalyst.
My research shows that meetups and start-up communities build connections based on shared objectives around a particular technology. They work by connecting passionate technologists, business leaders, start-ups, and academics for free talks, discussions workshops and study sessions on multiple areas. These events represent a convergence of talent and advanced thinking (and they need nurturing) For example, in our latest report Europe: Digital Superpower or Second Rate Periphery Player, my research reveals pockets of digital skills across Europe (and a high concentration of sector-specific skills in Switzerland). Groups self-form around a hypothesis and work collaboratively. The result for Google in Zurich could mean the technology evolves at a rapid pace with the right conditions to encourage it. Which is why attracting start-ups into Switzerland is paramount for the country’s future and why Swiss politicians are beginning to take the necessary action to attract them. So more on this later.
P.S. Back to the Hack because it was fascinating to see the process laid out end-to-end. Shout out to the six participants: Annanow (gig engine for couriers), Oxygen at Work (greening the workspace), BlockDox (“we make spaces smarter”—my favorite), eMonitor (socializing cities), BotBoys (making the bots smarter) and HawaDawa (making air clean). These start-ups represent great ideas, and they each had forty-five seconds to pitch them. Then the rest of us had to pick a pitch that appealed most, and help the owner make it work. One particularly harsh moment was when all the founders had to turn their backs on their newly assembled team and listen to some extremely harsh criticism—i.e. great product but rubbish pitch! And incidentally, it was HawaDawa that deservedly won the day.