Scaling Up the Innovation Ecosystem

Thomas Nastas is an American venture capitalist based in the heart of Moscow. A recent blog post nicely condenses an article of his in which he explains how technology firms need to leverage success in their home markets before moving up the value chain.

Although writing about Russian and Eastern European SMEs, one immediately draws some strong comparisons with the New Zealand situation as he reflects on the role of government in national innovation systems. Like New Zealand, both Russia and Hungary have set aside funds to kick start a public-private partnership to co-invest in technology start-ups. But unlike New Zealand, Eastern Europe and Russia has a huge and largely untapped domestic market for technology products and services. Russia also has the benefit of an extensive programme of university research funded by government and the military.

Nastas prescribes a formula that involves SMEs targetting domestic customers and refining their product offering prior to approaching investors for cash to support tackling global markets. He quotes the example of Israel’s cleantech industry of water purification that grew up, with government support, around addressing a vast domestic need for fresh water. Exports of this technology alone are expected to reach $2 billion by 2010.

He also has some praise for New Zealand as a remote economy grappling with the need to diversify globally. By focussing where there already existed a competitive advantage, he notes how New Zealand’s exports of high end wine and meat products have grown substantially over the last decade or so, based on investment in technical innovation.

It’s a salutary lesson probably not lost on the architects of the Fast Forward programme. But we must not forget that agriculture isn’t the only game in town. High tech exporters like Endace, Rakon and Weta Digital sell their wares almost exclusively in offshore markets. The natural competitive advantage these companies enjoy is the ability to attract and retain an intelligent and highly creative labour force. Focussing only on food and beverage innovation within the agricultural sector would be a mistake.

Thomas Nastas first published his article in the Eastern European edition of the Harvard Business Review. A full version can be found here.

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