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The Future of the Future: Incubating the next-generation enterprise

This article appears in the issue November/December 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 10]


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Let’s take a look at building the small business of the future, from the ground up. Large companies, governments and non-profits should pay attention also. You need to be just as agile and entrepreneurial as a small business.

I’ve been involved with business incubation, on-and-off, for several decades. I can recall, back in the early days, visiting incubators throughout North America, when there were only a few dozen. They were typically located in places such as "revitalization zones," old, decaying manufacturing districts of a bygone era, or former military bases.

The idea was to give startups an advantage by sharing resources: low-cost building space, telecommunications capacity, meeting rooms, receptionists, etc. The notion also was to be able to share knowledge with fellow incubator tenants. However, that was rarely the case in practice.

Today, there are about 5,000 incubators worldwide, according to the National Business Incubation Association (nbia.org). Every so often, I get the opportunity to tour one. Much to my surprise, I’ve seen very little difference over the years. Same shared receptionist, copier and lunchroom. More recently, some have added a level of sophistication, such as shared wet labs for biotech, or shared fabrication facilities for fledgling manufacturing companies.

Regardless, I’ve always asked incubator managers the same question: "How much knowledge sharing goes on here, both among your incubator tenants and with other incubators?" With few exceptions, the answer remains the same: "Little, if any."

I’m not talking about proprietary knowledge. I’m talking about what every business, small or large, must have: quick and easy access to knowledge in matters of finance, accounting and payroll, legal counsel, recruiting, selection, hiring, training, sales and marketing, customer support, security, infrastructure and so forth.

Sure, there are the usual classes in "How To Write a Business Plan," and "Determining Whether To File Tax Schedule C or Form XbzL2gfp." What’s still missing after all these years is a systematic approach for making available the many critical knowledge nuggets an entrepreneur needs. Yet most of those nuggets continue to be learned by trial and error, an expense we can no longer afford.

The role of the university

A sound R&D base is essential for any region or nation wishing to compete in the global knowledge economy. The good news is that research institutes are cranking out an abundance of promising technologies. The bad news is, getting them into the marketplace is fraught with failure.

We will never know how many potential breakthrough products die before leaving the laboratory. Research professors and scientists are very good at what they do. But the goal cannot simply be to publish papers and get additional funding. The results of our best university research need to rapidly move out into commercial application.

The glaring opportunity is, universities already have most of the other pieces. Marketing departments. Finance and economics departments. Law schools. Human development programs. Even Web design. Those factions must start working together, so students and faculty alike can experience firsthand how the various disciplines fit into the big picture. That’s real-world knowledge integration.

Turbo-charging a vital economic engine

Small business is a key component in any economy, whether mature or developing. Just look at the success of the micro-loan concept. In fact, given today’s problems, we need small business innovation more than ever. But hanging out a shingle doesn’t cut it anymore. Nor does just putting up a Web site. We’ve got to create an infrastructure that allows the rapid flow of specialized knowledge in a way that new ideas can be moved into the marketplace, quickly and easily. And we can’t allow barriers such as physical proximity, or increasing regulatory burdens, to slow down the process.

Law professor Fred Provorny understands this new paradigm. He and his team recently launched the Center for New Technology Enterprise. Passionately shunning bricks-and-mortar, they conduct all of their activities in a virtual environment, keeping costs to a minimum. Drawing from their growing network of graduate students and subject matter experts, they’ve got many parts of the value chain covered. Technology startups anywhere can take advantage of their collective experience and know-how.

The financial environment is anything but rosy right now. Money is tight. That means making better and more effective use of available resources, of which there are many. We just need to wire them up, so entrepreneurs, and intrapreneurs alike, can access them. No more whining, no more excuses.

Here’s a quick question to ask yourself: "Where are you in the knowledge value chain, and how well are you connected to the other pieces?" From the university research lab to the e-commerce shopping cart, all of the components for building a global, virtual enterprise are within reach. It’s time to start stitching the pieces together. 


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