Merging ideas from Dutch innovation groups to create a better Research Triangle Park
While in the Netherlands, we had the opportunity to visit several innovation groups, including the Amsterdam Smart City and Strijp-S groups. Both are platforms that spur innovation by bringing numerous start-ups and established companies together, giving them the opportunity to collaborate. Observing the similarities and differences between the two innovation hubs can aid in drawing conclusions of how Research Triangle Park (RTP) could be structured in the future to become an innovation capital.
Amsterdam Smart City (ASC) is a platform at which companies that are working on making Amsterdam into a smart city can meet. A smart city is a city that integrates and connects technology and data from around the city to increase the quality of life of its inhabitants. Each company that is housed in ASC has a moon goal. ASC values the quote “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you will land among the stars”; they believe that every company should have a major goal that they are shooting for. The government and other companies all have to agree that the company’s moon goal is achievable and useful for the city before that company can pursue the goal. Involving the city government in the goal is important for making sure the company does not create a technology that is not marketable or helpful to increasing quality of life.
Following the presentation about Amsterdam Smart City, Tom Van Arman presented to us about hackathons. Hackathons have a lot of potential for solving major problems the city faces. During a hackathon, a problem is brought forward, and people from the city form groups to brainstorm solutions. The hackathons only last for a day or two. When people are under a time constraint to come up with a solution, they generate a lot of ideas that may not have come up otherwise. At the end of the hackathon, the group with the best idea is given funding to work on their project. Hackathons are therefore great events for generating new ideas and putting those ideas into practice.
Strijp-S was a cluster of companies we visited while in Eindhoven, a town in the southeast portion of the Netherlands. Many of the companies housed within Strijp-S focused on reinventing Eindhoven. According to our professor, Eindhoven was not always the neat town that saw while visiting: it had undergone a lot of changes. Several of the Strijp-S companies were focused on adding sensors, greenspace, and residential communities to the city. The sensors could monitor crowds and could change the light color, which could help to control how loud people are. Eindhoven’s city government funded many of the projects, demonstrating that it is important to have the government involved in the planning of the city.
There are several aspects of Strijp-S that made it a strong innovation environment. For one, established companies and start-ups are housed in the same building, which enables start-ups to get advice from the established companies and established companies to receive new ideas and motivation from the start-ups. As we toured the building, we were greeted by open space and lounge areas with drinks and game tables. Our guide explained that the lounge areas were good informal places for businesses to mingle and bounce ideas off each other. In the past, several companies had met in these lounges and brainstormed ways for their companies to develop a product together. Nearby cafes and markets also provide the opportunity for the different companies to meet up. Discussing ideas with other companies is a great way to spur innovation.
Strijp-S and ASC have several similar qualities. The government provides some funds for both of the clusters, but for ASC the government gives input into what is being developed for the city. This is an important aspect because it ensures that the cluster is working to improve the quality of life of the city’s inhabitants. Both clusters also bring different companies together, which helps the companies to share advice and skills. While ASC brings companies together by requiring that they approve each other’s moon goals, Strijp-S houses start-ups and established companies and provides common meeting areas. Even though the clusters differ in how they bring companies together, their methods touch on two important aspects of innovation: regulation and informality. Requiring that companies approve of each other’s ideas increases the likelihood that the idea will be successful while informal spaces help to bring businesses together naturally.
In addition to governmental aid and bringing companies together, the clusters also value the triple helix model. In fact, this model was popular for many of the businesses visited throughout the Netherlands. The triple helix model is a model that combines industry, the government, and institutions to bring about the best innovation possible. In this model, the government provides funding for projects and ensures that projects are in the best interest for the city. Universities and businesses often work together on projects, and it is not uncommon for students to intern with the companies. This triple helix model is important for innovation because it allows for city input, builds students into future innovators, utilizes all available research space, and brings the experience of businesses together with the fresh ideas of students.
One final similarity between the ASC and Strijpe-S is their emphasis on start-up companies. In Strijp-S start-ups help to provide new ideas and are placed with the established companies. In ASC, start-ups are generated from hackathons. Once again, the two companies illustrate several important innovation concepts: the merging of start-ups with established companies and events to spur new ideas and start-ups. Merging start-ups and established companies helps to combine expertise with fresh ideas while innovative events like hackathons help to brainstorm new companies for major problems.
In order to create a successful innovation hub in RTP, the factors seen in the Netherlands should be synthesized and applied. First, let’s consider the structure of RTP. The park was originally constructed in the 1950’s and is therefore ready to be constructed into a new innovating machine. Start-ups and established companies should be housed near each other. This housing could be within the same building or on a campus. If the companies are housed within the same building, this building should have common meeting ground for the businesses. If the companies are housed on the same campus, coffee shops and restaurants should be scattered throughout the campus. These would provide informal meeting places. Many business leaders stress the importance of chatting over coffee or in lounges: this is where new product ideas are developed best! The fresh ideas of start-ups and the expertise of established companies are two important ingredients for successful innovation.
The government of Raleigh should not be separated from the innovation in RTP: both ASC and Strijpe-S have proven that the government plays an integral role in innovation. Funding from the government is important to promote innovation, as new products and companies are expensive to create. The government should go a step further than merely providing funding to RTP, though; similarly to Amsterdam the Raleigh government should have a say in the products that are being created. This could take the form of having a monthly meeting between a governmental official and an RTP representative. The government should be able to veto some products in order to ensure that the products will be helpful for the city.
As discussed earlier, the third aspect of the triple helix model is the university. Universities provide important new ideas and research/project opportunities for businesses. There are three major universities in the research triangle region- UNC, NC State, and Duke- and these universities have the potential to make a tremendous impact on innovation in RTP. However, there is not a lot of collaboration between these universities and RTP companies, especially when it comes to research. This is a key factor that must be changed for innovation to be successful. Specifically, programs could be created at the universities that connect students with companies. Students could intern at RTP companies, and companies could share some of their knowledge with students. Projects between companies and students are also essential to innovation because they utilize the university’s resources, generate useful products for society, and teach students how to innovate and how to think about innovation.
One final aspect to consider in the process of creating an innovation capital in Raleigh is hackathons. In Amsterdam, hackathons have tremendous success in bringing people together to think about problems. Hackathons could be hosted by RTP to bring forward new ideas and to generate new start-up companies. In addition to the citizens of Raleigh, students, professors, and governmental officials could take part in the hackathons. This would aid in strengthening the triple helix model and bringing in fresh ideas. RTP has all of the ingredients of an innovation capital: start-ups, established companies, universities, and the government. However, these pieces have not yet been merged. The creation of the triple helix model in RTP is essential for the future of innovation there. Moreover, start-ups and established companies must have space to mingle, allowing new ideas to flourish. Following the examples set by ASC and Strijpe-S, RTP can become an innovation capital in the U.S.