02/11/2011 - 11:15

Tapping the entrepreneurial spirit

02/11/2011 - 11:15


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Perth has hosted many international visitors over the past couple of weeks, and not all of them were here for CHOGM.

NOW that the Queen’s visit and CHOGM are over, it’s back to normal for the people of Western Australia.

For most businesses, that means trying to tap into the opportunities flowing from the resources boom, or making the most of the subdued trading conditions in sectors such as retail, tourism and hospitality.

Some people have the ability to look beyond current trading conditions and focus on creating new opportunities, courtesy of innovation and entrepreneurship.

Curtin University has been particularly active in this space, with financial support from local benefactors.

Curtin Business School, with backing from company director and venture capital investor Charlie Morgan, brought Cambridge University’s Shai Vyakarnam to Perth last month.

Dr Vyakarnam has a perfect Commonwealth heritage – born in New Zealand, of Indian extraction, and living in the UK.

He also has a good grasp of history. Talking about the role of universities in commercial innovation, he noted that Cambridge had its first spin-out company – Cambridge University Press – in 1534.

Dr Vyakarnam quotes famous scientist Francis Bacon, who described universities as “merchants of light”, focused on solving the big problems of the day.

With that inspiration, Dr Vyakarnam established Cambridge’s Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, which he says shifted thinking 90 degrees from the traditional approach.

“Most universities teach about entrepreneurship; we need education for entrepreneurs,” he said.

The centre’s goal is to “spread the spirit of enterprise”, and to foster curiosity and self-confidence.

“We thought if we could infect enough people with the spirit of entrepreneurship, they would find their own solutions,” Dr Vyakarnam said.

Dr Vyakarnam will be back in Perth later this month to run Ignition, an intensive program designed to help business people and others turn innovative ideas into commercial success.

The program focuses on practical learning that enables individuals to develop their own ideas.

This week’s Univation conference has similar goals – it’s all about harnessing the innovative ideas in the state’s universities and turning them into something real.

The creative ideas presented at events like Univation, which was held for the first time last year, are a good antidote for people who worry that WA is just a mining town.

With support from people like Silicon Valley banker turned Perth resident Larry Lopez, Univation will benefit again from several international visitors, such as Bill Tai of Charles River Ventures and David Henderson of XPV Capital Corporation.

Mr Tai, who will have a stint as innovator-in-residence and visiting professor at Curtin University, provides a great example of finding competitive advantage in unexpected places.

He used the lure of WA’s windy beaches to entice a group of kite surfing venture capitalists from San Francisco to Perth for the conference.

The Ignition program will also use real entrepreneurs as part of its teaching program.

Dr Vyakarnam is a strong believer that the best people to teach nascent entrepreneurs are experienced entrepreneurs.

To that end, Cambridge has champion role models – serial entrepreneurs who have a long track record with successes and failures.

Dr Vyakarnam said that, over many years, Cambridge had built an entrepreneurial ‘ecosystem’ that linked academics with industry and investors, and also included regional development agencies, enterprise centres and alumni communities.

Informed by this success, he has strong views about the role of ‘clusters’, such as Technology Park in Bentley.

He said developing clusters was all about having the right people, and had very little to do with physical infrastructure.

“If you want a cluster, don’t build buildings,” Dr Vyakarnam said.

“Get a group of people together, and get them talking.

“You also need to get your high net worth individuals to support them, to be business angels.”

And what about government?

He believes the most important role for government is to provide assured long-term funding, to all universities.


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