Last week’s [Baltic Dynamics 2008](http://www.teaduspark.ee/?q=/eng/BD) conference was opened by an address by the [President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves](http://president.ee/en/), speaking on Innovation. As the full text did not make it to the president.ee website’s [speeches section](http://president.ee/en/duties/speeches.php) yet, I pinged his office and they kindly provided me a full copy in a few hours. Transparent government in action, love it.
As I think this is one of the best condensed summaries of the major issues — such as investments, education, attracting labour — Estonia and Europe are facing developing as technology hotbeds, I am re-publishing the whole text for your reading pleasure. Really worth your time.
**Welcome address of the President of Estonia
at the opening of (innovation) conference ‘Baltic Dynamics’
Dorpat SPA Hotel, Tartu, 4 September 2008**
Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,
I am glad to speak here at the opening of the 13th ‘Baltic Dynamics’ conference, an increasingly international meeting, as it should be the case in the field of innovation.
This time the conference takes place at amidst a global economic slowdown, a situation that is frankly unfamiliar for many in Estonia. According to some (admittedly somewhat dire) predictions, this may become the most severe global downturn over the last decade. In terms of our domestic economies, all three Baltic countries stand on the threshold of a paradigm shift; the motor of rapid growth — a competitive advantage based on cheap labor seems to be over. As indeed we have all hoped it would be, for a rise in wages and quality of life is, after all what convergence is all about. But this also creates a new challenge: further development of our economies can come only from higher value added products and services. In this sense innovation is naturally the key to shifting from slowdown to growth.
We must ourselves – how did we reach the state of affairs where we are now? Our economic development has been very rapid, but not always enough forward-looking. The recent slowdown in our economy is – at least to a certain extent – caused by overinvestment in sectors that have provided high yields in the short term (such as real estate) and which are prone to move in correlation with fluctuations of domestic demand. That said, it does not mean that some investments are less necessary than the others, but in the longer term a very small economy cannot rely solely on the domestic market. Indeed, even the second and third largest economies in the world, Japan and Germany cannot rely solely on domestic demand either.
He shared a very interesting and bold incentive concept that the British Columbia (not even the whole Canada) government has introduced to motivate private investments in small technology startups. Per every dollar invested, the government will pay you 30% back at once. The conditions include holding your investment(s) for five years minimum and a yearly cap of 200,000 CAD total.
So in other words, when you invest 10,000 CAD in a software startup, you get a 10,000 CAD share of equity for the price of 7,000. Or, as an alternative scenario, a private investor can keep investing their capital gained from a previous exit at a rate of 200,000 CAD per year, taking an annual cashback of 60,000 CAD out for their own living expenses as opposed to paying themselves salary.
This scheme is applicable to both direct investments and private investors participating in VC funds, such as the ones Discovery builds.
The results? The district of 4 million people that has been heavy on mining and forestry industries now hosts 70,000 people in tech sector (that’s almost 10x more than Estonia, half the size; comparable to Czech Republic – but their total population is 10M), 8 locally focussed VC funds (larger ones with 500M CAD funds), 8000 mostly small and medium tech companies…
I just love the simplicity as well as braveness of this lever and can only imagine the type of political opposition introducing it could have caused.
I wish Estonian government would spend some time seeking out similar ideas from the world… and implementing the best ones fast.
Thomas L. Friedman wrote in the Herald Tribune a few years ago a column that acknowledged, and probably injected a lot of self confidence to innovators outside of the usual suspect American hightech hubs. Written from an angle of criticism towards the American high school system, I found his text much more useful read upside down – thinking about how the more remote areas previously known for their cheap labour and mass quantity low tech production are winning share on the global innovation arena. “In a flat world people can now innovate without having to emigrate,” as Friedman put it in rhyme.
Now in one of the recent issues of FastCompany, Richard Florida took a look back and found that the innovation world has not gone flat afterall. Highly recommended read as a whole, but I picked out a few interesting facts for myself:
- Of the roughly 170,000 patents granted in 2003 in the United States–which gets applications for nearly all major inventions worldwide–nearly 80% went to Americans, Japanese, and Germans. The next 10 most innovative countries–the usual suspects in Europe, plus Taiwan, South Korea, Israel, and Canada–produced another 15%. The rest of the world accounted for only 5%, with India and China responsible for just 0.4%.
- Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs founded or cofounded roughly 30% of all Silicon Valley startups in the late 1990s, generating $20 billion in annual revenue and about 70,000 jobs.
- There are about 150 million (!) people in highly mobile, global creative class who migrate freely among the world’s leading cities–places such as London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco
What Friedman originally called for as producing a comprehensive U.S. response – encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy – is more valid than ever in this situation… but maybe even more so for the “receding valleys between spikes” as described by Florida. Umm… like Estonia?
On Monday I was in Helsinki, speaking at a seminar organized by Tekes, Finnish funding agency for tech & innovation. They are launching a new generation of integrated startup financing schemes – which I do not know much about, as my Finnish is below par to fully understand their published materials. But it was a nice half-day event to provide context around their announcements.
The guest speakers included Dr Orna Berry who shared the Israeli innovation financing experiences, Quatar Capital’s Mikko Suonelahti’s talk on venture capital markets. In between them, I was asked to share the story of Skype as a recent startup.