Universities are central to innovation ecosystems: a case in point
Kaspar Kuus and Reino Zuppur’s journey to launch Cody – an online app that helps students learn how to code Python – began at the University of Tartu’s (UT) IdeaLab. One of its projects, Network Globally, Act Locally (NGAL), links five American and Estonian universities, as well as local and international entrepreneurs and students. It is an intensive business development programme that begins with workshops led by university lecturers and mentors from start-up companies, and culminates with a competition where students pitch their ideas and business plans before a panel of judges. It is economic collaboration at its best: across disciplines, the private sector, public institutions and borders; and it shows how universities are part of emerging ecosystems of innovation.
UT’s IdeaLab is a non-academic university programme managed by Maret Ahonen, who welcomes students and strangers alike with openness and warmth. Students from all faculties and even partner institutions are welcome to participate in the basic and advanced seminars. They also benefit from the relationships UT lecturers and project managers have formed with Estonia’s start-up communities through the years.
IdeaLab workshops link up to events such as regional hackathons and the IdeaStorm sponsored by the lab. Students organise groups, pitch ideas and are encouraged to engage with people who diversify their skillsets, connecting communicators with developers, for example. As Ahonen always tells IdeaLab participants: “learn to talk to strangers!”
In addition to the workshops and hackathons, IdeaLab founders and project managers united to co-organise what has become an annual event called Start-Up Day. This year, it will take place on 8 December at Tartu’s AHHAA Science Centre. Start-Up Day brings together the city government, Tartu’s academic community and the private sector.
To succeed, IdeaLab has received sustained support from the university allowing a community of determined students, inspired lecturers, teachers and professors, and practitioners to form. Moreover, the University of Tartu recently decided to carve a physical space for the pre-incubator in the new Delta building, which will also house the Mathematics, Computer Science, and Economics and Business Administration faculties.
Both, IdeaLab and its flagship networking event, among other initiatives linked to these, are co-financed by European Union funding schemes. They show how EU financial support, local initiative, and civic enterprise come together through university staff and student engagement to develop new ideas and enable them.
What are the lessons to be learned?
In Brussels, Carlos Moedas, the Commissioner for Research and Innovation, has successfully argued for the creation of a European Innovation Council (EIC) that would, among other things “provide strategic advice to improve innovation environments.” EIC will be piloted in the last few years of Horizon 2020 with the hope of fully incorporating it into the next Framework Programme.
Innovation in Tartu, and in the rest of Estonia, is directed at different markets, and develops in different environments. The European Innovation Council can choose to focus on supporting big-market ideas only, or it can also foster innovation ecosystems that can make a context-driven, regional impact. The emerging innovation ecosystem in Tartu underlines the value of universities in fostering new ways of working, thinking and collaborating; and it signals the significance of EU funding in turning ideas into reality.
Kaspar Kuus’ Cody, from inception to launch, is a case in point. Armed with the skills he learned at IdeaLab, the feedback he received throughout the programme, and the confidence he built, he moved to develop Cody. “The idea came to me when I had a hard time learning how to code,” explains Kaspar, “when I tried to learn Python, I didn’t find a platform to support my struggles. Then I thought that if there’s not a solution for the problem I shall make one.” He found a team in a local hackathon that had experience in coding, and shared his vision: the rest is history.