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Could location become irrelevant for innovation ecosystems?

Innovation is now the new buzzword that is on everyone’s lips. Policymakers and governments are all talking about innovation as the key to unlocking economic growth. Countries and organizations around the world are all planning their own versions of a ‘global innovation summit’ as we have just seen in San Jose, CA, USA, to bring together policymakers, economic development agencies and social entrepreneurs from around the world.

It is not surprising then that the Global Innovation Index 2012, co-published by INSEAD (the business school) and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) has gained significant global attention. In it, the top country according to the index is Switzerland, followed by Sweden and Singapore. The innovation index ranks 141 countries, and bottom of the list are countries like Togo, Yemen and Sudan. Interestingly, the USA has dropped in the rankings from seventh last year to 10th this year – many commentaries, including a recent article in Forbes, have now warned of the USA losing its capacity as an innovator.

But does innovation equate to economic success?  And do these figures and rankings necessarily indicate that one country leads over another in innovation?

This is something that it is worth putting into perspective, as we often use words like ‘innovation’ very liberally, without necessarily understanding what aspect of innovation we mean. According to some, innovation is not necessarily the recipe for business success. “Innovation is not the most important ingredient for success. It’s not even necessary, but merely nice to have”, according to a review of the book by Jim Collins, ‘Good to Great’.

The Stanford biodesign example – exporting innovation

According to Christine Kurihara, who runs the biodesign program at the Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health, there are two types of innovation – those that are ‘discoveries’ and the more common type which is ‘needs driven innovation’. The biodesign center is focused on medical device innovation, and its very small fellowship program has already produced 24 spinout companies in 11 years.

One of these spinouts from the research is iRhythm, which launched in 2007 and is now in the process of raising another round of funding.  iRhythm makes cardiac rhythm monitoring more accessible and available to many more patients who may be at risk for an abnormal heart rhythm, or an arrhythmia.

The iRhythm innovation came from Stanford University’s biodesign program, where the founder worked with two engineers and a business school graduate to understand the unmet clinical needs of patients suffering from arrhythmias. From this collaboration, they found that many patients suffering from arrhythmias were simply not being diagnosed and those who were, were being diagnosed in an inefficient and untimely manner.

They developed a breakthrough technology designed to improve the diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmias, in the form of a patch which provides up to 14 days of continuous recording, increasing the likelihood of capturing abnormal heart rhythms.

The key to this and several other innovations that have come out of this group at Stanford is that they are focused on ‘needs driven innovation’ rather than ‘invention’. Innovation is often mistakenly thought of as the latter as people imagine it to be all about bursts of creativity. But as Stanford’s Biodesign team point out, the teaching of the process of innovation as a formal step-by-step program is the key to their activity.

The center has also been able to ‘export’ this innovation process to India and Singapore. They have done this by selecting fellows for the biodesign program from those countries, and then these fellows return to their countries to apply the innovation process to the medical devices and healthcare needs in-country.

Innovation in this example is being taught and also ‘exported’. This could be considered as part of a possible trend towards global innovation collaboration.  After all a key ask from policymakers in emerging countries in Africa and Latin America is the thirst for knowledge transfer back to their countries – knowledge and best practice for developing their own innovation and entrepreneur ecosystems, learning from successful established clusters around the world, including Silicon Valley.

But as the Stanford biodesign example illustrates, location could be irrelevant in the innovation ecosystem, as research could be carried out at any one of many centres of excellence around the world and then transplanted back in a particular country that has specific needs to be addressed by some technology innovation.

Indeed, with such global knowledge transfer and collaboration taking place, the vision portrayed by some economics commentators of a ‘flat world’ in innovation could happen sooner than we think, especial as location and region becomes irrelevant as companies and organizations utilize internet and broadband technologies to enable global innovation ecosystems.

Nitin Dahad, CEO & Publisher, The Next Silicon Valley

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