Innovation: manoeuvring the slippery slope
Mr Mangion is a senior partner of PKF an audit and consultancy firm, and has over 30 years experience in accounting, taxation, financial and consultancy services. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on +356 21493041.
As a small country, it is no surprise that we are rather low in the pecking order in relation to priority technologies such as robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology. It is all very well that we pride ourselves on having one of the oldest universities in southern Europe and that we provide free and fully subsidized education up to and beyond tertiary levels, but we never built a solid bridge linking the academic world to industry. In essence, it is all about creating jobs and economic growth to keep up with the competition from other countries which continuously strive to stay ahead of the game.
A case in point is the commercial position of pharmaceutical companies in Malta which so far produce generic drugs and mostly do their R&D elsewhere. Only this week, Teva (previously Actavis – producer of generic drugs), as a result of its European restructuring, will be laying off one-third of its workers including a number of experienced operators such as lab analysts, IT experts and human resources among others. In contrast, UK Prime Minister Theresa May last week pledged to commit a £2 billion annual fund by 2020 for scientific research and development and proposed a review of tax incentives for innovative corporations in an effort to boost the levels of technology in industry. The race to attract quality technology companies is a tough one.
The previous administration worked very hard to build an ICT city and generate a nexus of excellence. In February 2006, the Government of Malta announced the start of framework discussions with Tecom Investments of Dubai to set up ‘SmartCity@Malta’. This wonderful project was the brainchild of Austin Gatt, then Minister for Investment, Industry and Information Technology who visualized the project becoming a centre of knowledgebased jobs in Malta. It was designed to place Malta on the global ICT map as a leader creating thousands of jobs – part of the drive to regenerate the south into a services-based hub in the Mediterranean region. Due to the severe recession that hit the global markets in 2007/8, the project was scaled down substantially.
As part of its corporate social responsibility, PKF Malta is keen to act as interlocutor to help promote Malta in the field of scientific research, which is why, through the intervention and assistance of its correspondents in Boston, it started exploratory talks with the head of international relations at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA to evaluate the possibility of introducing Malta as a potential ICT and/or Life Sciences hub for investors, inventors and entrepreneurs. Such a visit was undertaken and found co-operation from the New York technical representative of Malta Enterprise –each party paid its own expenses
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a private research university in Cambridge, USA founded in 1861 in response to the increasing industrialization of the United States. Its budget for last year exceeded $700 million and is currently in the process of building a massive extension to house its nanotechnology research. The uniqueness of MIT is its appetite for problems solving – especially those intractable, technical problems whose solutions make a permanent difference. With its supportive campus environment, it houses an incredible range of student groups coming from the four corners of the world and thanks to its diversity and creative atmosphere, its graduates flourish in all faculties. It is no stranger to accolades and is rated the world’s best university in chemistry; economics; linguistics; materials sciences; nanotechnology and astronomy.
This impressive learning institution is the pride of the American intelligentsia and other developed countries such as Singapore have regularly invested in its success since the sixties to partake of its overflowing chalice of innovation and cutting-edge research.
Another interesting landmark is the Boston-based Community Innovation Center (CIC) founded in 1999 and located in Kendall Square. This houses more than 1000 companies in close to 50,000 square metres of premium office and co-working space across eight facilities, including its most recent expansion in St. Louis, Missouri. A number of local high-profile companies (including top names such as Facebook and Amazon) know their baptism at CIC – including its HubSpot, which now employs over 1,100 people, and raised $125 million through its IPO last October, and Greatpoint Energy, which several years ago announced a $1.25 billion deal to build reactors in China. Additionally, Android cofounder Rich Miner built his portion of Google Android and established Google’s New England headquarters there.
CIC also has a non-profit sister organization – the Venture Cafe Foundation. What is so special about CIC? The answer is that as an innovation centre it has succeeded to attract world class start-ups which proved very supportive for the Boston economy through the generation of premium jobs enriched with high value-added research in an impressive range of scientific sectors.
Having toured its offices and laboratories, we were impressed by the number of dedicated entrepreneurs who work hard to pursue the proverbial Alchemist Stone. Its founder is in the final stages of opening a new start-up hub in Rotterdam, The Netherlands – the first of its kind outside the US. The Centre will house 550 innovative companies and build on CIC’s international community of entrepreneurs, investors, and established businesses. Rotterdam was selected as an ideal location, and was chosen after analytic studies revealed it is a very central city just one hour flight south of Amsterdam, a “footstep” away from the Belgium border and really close to other European hubs like London, Paris or Cologne. The Dutch population is fluent in English and Rotterdam prides itself on being a melting pot of different cultures. The ambition of Tim Rowe, the founder of CIC is to bridge continents and fuse innovation in Europe.
It goes without saying that the ambitious idea of an ICT Innovation Centre in Smart City, which as stated earlier was a pipe dream 10 years ago, can with some imagination and political will become a reality. This can be a complementary move to strengthen the operation of an impressive Life Sciences block recently opened – now with a respectable number of quality tenants. Ultimately, the dream of promoting an international centre of calibre geared to attract inventors is to populate a home-grown innovation hub, which is doable provided support is marshalled to help fund such a venture. Naturally, a hub when fully operational attracts international academics and entrepreneurs to research and develop new ideas – the backbone of strong start-ups, and the creation of virtual bridges to global universities and technical institutes focused to discover trends in cutting-edge technologies.
In conclusion, helping to revive the ghost of SmartCity to commingle with a sister CIC centre will vindicate the original ambitious plan to have an active research and development base. This is the magic formula that helped the US attract new industries of stature (so-called Unicorns) with unique high value-added able to withstand the vagaries of international competition.