Πέμπτη 10 Οκτωβρίου 2013

Entrepreneurship and Universities: More on my IVLP / ANB13 experience

New York City
October 1st, 2013

Tom Leighton, the SAT problem and changing Universities in Europe to support entrepreneurial growth and job creation

Tom Leighton is a very special person. Being a Professor of Applied Mathematics at MIT, ranked as the best university in theworld in Computer Science & Engineering, he also is the founder of Akamai, the company which revolutionized multimedia delivery over internet in the late 90s, actually creating the unified video-voice-image internet experience that most of us enjoy today.

The "SAT problem" is one of the most difficult mathematical problems in the field of Boolean Algebra, which largely forms the core of Computer Science. At many Universities around the Globe, SAT problem is taught at the final year of the curriculum as an advanced topic.

Before starting my IVLP/ANB13 program in Washington DC, I paid a visit to Boston, Massachussets. I was informed there about the following two facts:
  1. Tom Leighton teaches the SAT problem to MIT students during their 1st or 2nd year of studies (!)
  2. The notes which Leighton distributes to his students mention his affiliation both to MIT and to Akamai . In other words, the MIT students while studying one of the hardest topics of their curriculum, proudly learn that their Professor has been the Co-founder of Akamai.
As far as teaching the SAT problem at 1st year students is concerned, I will only comment that MIT’s ranking as No1 in the World in Computer Science & Engineering is anything but accidental. Many European Technical Universities used to include very strong mathematics in their curricula. Some of them still do so. It is rather obvious that keeping doing so and even increasing the difficulty level of the offered studies will only be good for Europe, in the new super-competitive global landscapes. Practical experience and learning tools, which must find its way to the Universities, must always be accompanied with solid theoretical background.

In this article however I shall focus to point [2], which in my opinion has a terribly high importance in understanding the changes that must take place in higher education in Europe in order to boost entrepreneurship and, via it, quality jobs creation. As a matter of fact, Universities in Europe have always been of high academic quality and more orless remain as such. Unfortunately though, in Europe we observe low entrepreneurial activity directly related with the academic and research ecosystem, which has created at least the following two consequences:
  1. A “start-up migration wave”, where most of the high-potential start-ups in the EU have either moved to the US or plan to do so, and ,
  2. A terrible opportunity cost has occurred in terms of quality jobs which could have been created, but actually they haven’t.
A rather disappointing fact is that linking the academic & research world with “the industry” has been a top priority for the EU Commission since quite a long time. Tens of billions have been spent in the RTD support programs in a number of “Framework Programs”, results however have been anything but satisfactory. In my opinion the main cause of this phenomenon is the following contradiction:

While funding rules actually ask for “commercialization plans” and “partnerships with the industry”, in real terms the academic and research community simply does not appreciate entrepreneurship. If Tom Leighton had been a Professor in Barcelona, Munich, Lisbon, Toulouse, Athens or Milano, it is very likely that many of his students, as well as many of his fellow professors, would not like at all his double affiliation on his notes, as Professor of the University and Co-founder of Akamai.”

A so-much-19th-century philosophy of not “mixing academic with for profit activities” is actually the highest barrier of European universities in their way towards being the knowledge hubs of sustainably growing entrepreneurial ecosystems.

During my IVLP/ANB13 program I had the privilege of visiting a number of leading American Universities, such as Georgetown, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Denver, Southern Methodist University and Columbia University. At all of them, literally ALL, it was very obvious that the academic environment not only is entrepreneurship-friendly but it actually is designed to boost entrepreneurship and to promote the "culture of failure". Very few European Universities can really make a similar claim - If any.

Being in the fifth year of the financial crisis in Europe and having general unemployment in the South higher than 25%, as well as youth unemployment is some cases (Spain, Greece) higher than 50%, it is now the time to look at the ugly truth and do something about it. The ugly truth is that while the number of well educated young Europeans increases constantly, very many of them fail to find a quality job, while on the same time the industry complains for having difficulties to find the right talent to cover their needs. It’s rather safe to conclude that there’s a growing gap between market needs and education provided by our educational system, both in terms of formal knowledge, and, more importantly, in terms of culture.

Donald Rumsfeld had talked about “Old Europe” almost one decade ago. It was probably one of the very few cases where I had agreed with this US politician. Europe is old, indeed. Behaves like an old person, it is slow moving and ultra-conservative. If we don’t do today some radical changes in our educational system, in economic terms Europe can only hope to a slow death. In that unfortunate event, the best-case scenario for Europe will be to become a huge open-air museum for Chinese tourists. The game is not over (yet) however, there still is time for changes which can bring Europe back to global leadership, given that these changes will be implemented soon and with high level of determination.

The World’s economy becomes increasingly knowledge intensive. We have to adapt to this reality and turn our universities to the knowledge hubs necessary to boost the “economy of creativity and collaboration”. NYC, the rising star of the tech world, does exactly the same as discussed in our recent meeting with Nancy Ploeger, President of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, during my IVLP/ANB13 program in the US. 

It is quite interesting that, although NYC launched its start-up strategy only few years ago, now it is an almost equally developed ecosystem with the San Francisco Bay Area and rather more developed than Boston - Where there is a huge tradition of high tech universities. That is probably because the City of New York made a wise choice: They played on their strength! 

Unfortunately, we Europeans do not play on our strength but seem to prefer the copycat way - that is to dream for many of our regions to become "the Silicon Valley of Europe". One can easily name 10+ European regions dreaming/aiming to become the Silicon Valley of Europe. On the other hand in NYC nobody ever dreamed of becoming "the Silicon Valley of the East Coast". What is the result of those two different choices? Today NYC competes with the Silicon Valley at -almost- equal terms while those European regions still remain miles behind. This situation could easily be described as the "Silicon Paranoia".

Many analysts in Europe have suggested a number of necessary measures for promoting high growth and innovative entrepreneurship aiming to the sustainable creation of quality jobs. They refer to increasing seed/risk financing, improving bankruptcy legislation, adding entrepreneurship courses in all of the educational levels and realizing the single European market for businesses. The analysts are right in their recommendations; however such measures will unfortunately fail unless a major cultural and political shift take place.

Students and fellow professors in Barcelona, Munich, Lisbon, Toulouse, Athens or Milano, as well as anywhere else in Europe, not only shouldn't be skeptic with seeing a European Professor having an entrepreneurial affiliation together with an academic one, like Tom Leighton does with MIT and Akamai, but they should strongly encourage and be highly proud of academics and researchers who managed to create sustainable, growing companies on the basis of cutting edge technology and research in European universities.

If we reach that point, if every European student starts dreaming of an entrepreneurial endeavor instead of a corporate career, a hugely important step for Europe will have been made. Europe does not lack the financial, neither the human nor the symbolic capital necessary to become the global leader in high growth and innovative entrepreneurship. All of the parts of the puzzle are just in front of us. We only need to put them in order and inspire a new entrepreneurial culture, making the youth of Europe to dream of realizing their creativity in sustainably growing businesses.  

In a very few words, it is time for Europe to put creativity and innovation above job security, as far as employment is concerned. Once we do this, it will not take long till a number of Akamai-level companies will be created around Europe and their proud founders will be teaching and inspiring the next generation of European entrepreneurs. Like Tom Leighton of Akamai does in MIT.

Dimitris Tsigos is the founder of StartTech Ventures, a start-up incubator in Athens, Greece . A serial tech entrepreneur and pioneer in seed financing, currently serves as President of YES – European Confederation of Young Entrepreneurs. He also is the Founder of the Hellenic Start-up Association and a Board Member at the European Business Angel Network. In 2012 he was nominated as one of the 40 European leaders under the age of 40 years. Dimitris recently participated to the IVLP / ANB13 program organized by the U.S. Department  of State and Entrepreneurs' Organization.

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