Every time I visit Latin America I witness how enthusiastically the region is embracing entrepreneurship, while becoming more and more aware of how far they have yet to go to develop true ecosystems of innovation that will support their long-term efforts. Having lived in Silicon Valley for almost 15 years, I have come to learn that the interaction between the various players of an ecosystem is what allows a region to prosper. It’s not a matter of entrepreneurs attempting to create companies, but rather an obsession to find innovative solutions that address real-world problems. And that’s the issue: real problems don’t just land at our desks. Valuable ideas spring from stepping out into the world and interacting with others, with people that see things differently from us: clients, potential associates, business people, investors, corporations, scientists, artists, and even complete strangers.
I was fortunate enough to evaluate a local Colombian ecosystem with Stanford University Professor Burton Lee, who is an expert in European innovation ecosystems. I was struck by how in only a few days, he was able to clearly identify and demonstrate how a large number of technology companies in the region were disconnected from real problems in agriculture, healthcare, public works, and so on. Sectors where one can find a vast number of universal issues that once addressed, will not only help local organizations, but many other communities around the world.
Similarly, I have found that scientists at Universities working on innovative solutions have virtually no contact with business schools, or local entrepreneurs; entities that could potentially help them to develop profitable business models and turn their ideas into reality. A researcher once shared with me: “I am tired of doing work that will only exist as research papers to present at large conferences, knowing that major players will eventually take these ideas, and years later develop from them successful products. If we’d only been a little more proactive, it would be us finding ways to scale these ideas.”
Most corporations in Latin America continue being passive and isolated, completely ignoring their crucial role within an innovation ecosystem. Their involvement extends beyond philanthropically supporting new companies, it ensures their own long-term survival. In a global environment there are virtually no barriers to enter international markets. It is only a matter of time before major international players arrive to compete in our own countries, and unless our companies have something truly innovative to offer, they have no chance of survival. Local corporations should begin to observe international trends, identifying innovation to adopt, acquire, or license before others do. They must also encourage local entrepreneurs to work on solutions that allow them to compete globally in the long term. That way they will become corporate investors in entrepreneurship, as many Silicon Valley industry leaders like Cisco, Google, and Intel are.
Governments must also play a key role, not only by providing seed capital and structure as they have done many times before, but also by creating spaces and programs that encourage all actors in an ecosystem of innovation to interact and address meaningful problems that promote economic growth in their countries. It is clear the first steps have been taken, but there is still a long journey ahead on the road to develop true ecosystems of innovation in Latin America.
Constanza Nieto is the Co-Founder and CEO of Globaltech Bridge, an established Silicon Valley international business consulting and acceleration company, and has nearly 10 years of experience successfully helping Latin American companies and governments expand to the global market, and is an outspoken advocate for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.