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10 signposts on how to brew your own Magic Potion for High Tech innovation ecosystems

Dec 11, 2015 11:55:00 AM. By: Bert-Jan Woertman

Insights on how to build a High Tech innovation ecosystem that (really) works!

Wow! What a year it’s been. There have never been so many foreign delegations visiting High Tech Campus Eindhoven. Some even booked a fact-finding trip to Eindhoven to discover if we have some kind of “magic potion” for our innovation ecosystem. What can explain the consistent successes we’re having in innovation? My answer often causes raised eyebrows. "Every city needs to discover the recipe for its own magic potion!"

Every community generates a mix of all kinds of special ingredients. Together they create the secret sauce which gives the whole place a distinct competitive advantage. Although there are no hard and fast rules, here are my ten innovation ecosystem signposts to be looking out for…. 

1.   Don’t try to copy – but do seek inspiration

It takes years to build a collaborative innovation ecosystem. Copying won’t work – because every smart city has to find its own “magic potion”. Different industries have their own clock-speed. And “your mileage may vary” as you try things out. But we encourage you to cherry pick from our experiences to build your own mix. It’s our way of giving back; because we’ve benefited from adapting good ideas we’ve seen on our travels.

2.   Build on Good Heritage

There may be legacy networks from (former) corporates still active in your metropolitan area. Some may be valuable, open to new ideas and willing to collaborate and share. When asked, they may champion a new direction. Separate them from naysayers, and those who long for the past. Experiment by introducing the heroes of the past to the undiscovered raw talent of today and tomorrow. Sometimes they fly apart. But opposites can also attract to form fresh dynamic teams in an innovation ecosystem. Never stop experimenting. Expect the unexpected.

(Check out the video from Brookings below)

3.   Innovation is not a department

In a former corporate life, I was a social psychologist. We’re all taught that personal and business performance soars when individual employee goals are closely aligned to the company's overall strategy. Yet, on average, just 7% of employees fully understand their company's business goals/strategies and their role in making it happen. Innovation is not a department. Innovation ecosystems are a state of mind. We know that the companies, large and small, that pay attention to human resources avoid wasting time in blowouts, losing their best talent and hiring the wrong people. There’s a whole wave of recent research backing up these findings. In previous posts, I’ve mentioned last year’s Brookings Institute report on Innovation Districts. In October 2015, the report by the Rotterdam School of Management Innovation monitor drew similar conclusions.

Here’s the fact that most CTO’s don’t know. Only 25% of Innovation success depends on the investments in ICT and related technologies. But 75% comes from other factors such as management innovation, removing hierarchical pyramids, maximising investment in human capital and co-creation with partners. Talking of an innovation ecosystem magic potion...

4.   Understand and grow your unique skills

The really global tech companies are built by leaders with a global vision from day one. Europe is a great springboard to test, validate and scale. But it requires people with strong ambition – and an international “outside-looking in” mentality. How will great companies from your city scale to become world brands? Leverage the international corporates to share their networks with local SME, startups and researchers to brew this innovation ecosystem. Use managed serendipity to stimulate interaction towards common goals.

5.   Tell more powerful stories than your competition

You’ll never make an impact if you don’t share your stories across national borders. And remember, people want to understand why they should care and what you’ve learned rather than hear you brag about your list of achievements. Today, people remember those who share ideas and break down barriers to innovation. Those organizing firework displays of over-hyped publicity are in the dark the day after. So be sure to identify the local influencers, experts and ambassadors that are willing to share their expertise with international media.


magic potion build your own High Tech Campus Eindhoven
High Tech Campus Eindhoven aerial view
magic potion build your own High Tech Campus Eindhoven
Allen Curve Proximity


6.   Collaboration is the best strategic path to an innovation ecosystem

Truly agile companies know they don’t have the funds, time or capacity to achieve success fast enough on their own. Strategic alliances are the way of cutting development costs and accelerating time to market. Tap into local trusted networks first to see what’s possible. Accept you can't know everything or ever hire someone who does. But if you can tap into a network of people, you're a lot smarter.

7.   Tap into resources already there

Our Brainport region has one of the highest concentrations of expats in the Netherlands – 35,000+ people now, double that by 2020. Many “internationals” bring their partners, who turn out to be extremely well qualified. Yet, it is never easy for a partner to find employment in a foreign country and, until recently, Holland was no exception. So we all applauded the emergence of the Expats Spouses Initiative – an active network of 500+ local expat spouses who turn out to be chemists, scientists, engineers and mathematicians. They are perfectly qualified to help us grow our local and international networks. And remember spouses that successfully restart their careers will encourage the whole family to stay in this innovation ecosystem.

8.   Create platforms and they will cluster

Eindhoven is building “clusters of excellence” in photonics (anything to do with light), precision engineering (think; various kinds of robotics), artificial intelligence, smart sensors and knowledge around new materials. Find your own core strategies of excellence. Then weave formal and informal networks together of OEM’s, SME’s, startups and research institutes. Take initiatives to organise a multitude of activities across your region. And keep the “creative fires” burning by ensuring regular encounters happen between different groups of people. Once you establish trust, informal networks tend to work much faster than formal ones.

9.   Proximity to Brilliant People is key

There’s a tight correlation between personal interactions, performance, and innovation. Putting restaurants, a conference centre and convenience services along The Strip was deliberate. Everyone has strong reasons to go there repeatedly during the course of the workday. It’s a concept you now see trending elsewhere. Google’s new campus is designed to maximize chance encounters. Facebook has already put several thousand of its employees into a single mile-long room. Harvard Business Review reminds us of the Allen Curve, which explains why proximity is so important for innovation ecosystems to thrive.

Thomas J. Allen was the first to measure the strong negative correlation between physical distance and frequency of communication. The “Allen curve” estimates that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting two metres away from us as with someone 20 metres away.  But the office is no longer just a physical place; we can enter it by logging on, attend meetings from anywhere, and collaborate on documents without ever seeing one another. So it would seem that distance-shrinking technologies break the Allen curve, and that communication no longer correlates to distance.

Wrong. Studies show that both face-to-face and digital communications follow the Allen curve. Out of sight means out of sync.

10) Don’t neglect the little things…because they matter

I often talk with alumni of our Startupbootcamp HighTechXL accelerator program. They tell me the help and support that teams give to each other during the 3 months are what makes it incredibly special. Having access to trusted mentors within walking distance is just as important. In fact these are reasons to start HighTechXL Plaza in HTC 12 – but more on that next time.

Remember, no-one can order innovation to happen. There is no script for an innovation ecosystem, there will be complications and the search for new business creation is never finished. Great ideas often come from chance encounters which were given time to breathe. That’s why I’m enjoying every moment of our journey!

Have special times together during the holidays. Celebrate success and look forward to bright engaging conversations in 2016.


Bert-Jan Woertman

High Tech Campus Eindhoven


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Bert-Jan Woertman
Bert-Jan Woertman


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