I was recently invited by the University of Edinburgh to speak at its business school’s Startup Festival’17 in a session entitled “How to build a Startup City: Lisbon and Waterloo share their strategies.” Aside from my excitement about discovering the beautiful city of Edinburgh, I was extremely curious to visit this 400 year old institution. It is renowned for its research excellence, ranked 19th in the 2016-17 QS rankings, with alumni that includes Charles Darwin, David Hume, and James Clerk Maxwell. Furthermore, they are playing a strategic role in tackling climate change by committing to become a net zero carbon university by 2040. The task of illustrating why Waterloo is particularly innovative was rather daunting. Edinburgh was the UK’s entrepreneurial city 2016, it boasts two unicorns, and is home to the UK’s largest tech incubator, Codebase, as well as a thriving business angel community; I had to be thoughtful of what Waterloo could share with this vibrant start-up community.
One early insight was that while both our universities play critical roles in supplying talent, research, and supporting venture creation, Waterloo’s unique approach to IP, expansive coop program, and deep industry collaboration have all been key to raising the region's profile across the globe. Jonathan Moules, business education correspondent for the Financial Times, moderated the panel with co-presenter Paulo Carvalho, General Director for Economy and Innovation for the city of Lisbon. Paulo has helped transform Lisbon from a predominantly tourist destination to an attractive location to start and build a company. Theirs is a successful top-down approach, with the local government investing heavily in repurposing industrial sites for use of incubator programs and affordable office space, while Waterloo’s success predominantly stems from the university spurring economic potential with regional stakeholders, and industry working collaboratively to amplify the opportunities.
The session attracted the attention of senior policy makers including Dr. Roddy MacDonald, Head of Higher Education and Science Division with the Scottish Government, with whom I shared our policies and programs that incentivize commercialization. Needless to say, such speaking engagements and knowledge transfer opportunities are extremely valuable to all parties involved. Every university and city, however, has a distinct strategy for attracting talent, investment, and media attention with no right or wrong approach. In a competitive landscape for the above, those with an open-minded, talent rich, and business-friendly environment will obviously do well. We can’t beat Lisbon’s views of the Atlantic or Edinburgh’s stunning architecture, and we should recognize from those cities that creating a vibrant cultural and sustainable community is equally important to an innovation ecosystem.
Learn more about the Conrad Centre's outreach programs.