Category Archives: Entrepreneurship

The foundation and future of Sophia Antipolis

This week, I am hosting a seminar on “Digitalization for Growth and Innovation” for the Norwegian Business School, at Skema Business School and the Accenture Interactive Innovation Center and Technology Lab in Sophia Antipolis. We asked Skema if someone could talk to the participants (managers from Norwegian companies) about the founding and evolution of the Science and Technology Park in itself. We got a very interesting discussion by Philippe Mariani, responsible for Strategy and Development of the Sophia Antipolis Foundation – and (drum roll) a visit by the founder of Sophia Antipolis himself, Senator Pierre Laffitte.

laffitte-mariani

Sophia Antipolis (sophia = wisdom, antipolis=not a city, actually an old term for Antibes) was founded in 1969, by Pierre Lafitte, who now is 91 and still involved in the development of the area. Back then, his idea was seen as a utopia, with plans for 20000 researchers in 20 years, but it garnered lots of attention. Now it pretty much is reality, genuinely a dream come through. There are 1400 companies with 30000 employees, 60000 people if you count supporting services. The whole place is laid out as a park, no straight roads, lots of threes – and it can actually be difficult to think of it as a city if you look at it from the air:

sophia

Sophia Antipolis works as an ecosystem, and attracts more revenues than the tourism industry in the south of France. SKEMA, the business school, is an important part of the ecosystem. In the beginning, it was very difficult to convince somebody to come and start here, one strategy was to utilize the strength of the network, arrange a concert in the middle of the forest, using the newspapers to attract attention, running specialized conferences on biotech, nanotechnology, etc., inviting 15-20 high-level people, do proceedings, these people then became ambassadors for the area.

Pierre Laffitte instituted some principles for the area:
1) that there should be no skyscrapers, no building higher than the hills. As a result the area feels like a park, and also feels quite small, even though it is large.
2) There should be no fences around companies, in order to facilitate cross-fertilization (a concept which is very important to the people building the area. In the beginning this even extended to asking companies not to have closed lunch areas, but invite others in.
3) As much as possible, a company settling in SF would have to have someone on the board with a different background – a writer, teacher, artist – in order to be critical, a devil’s advocate, and to foster innovation.

Sophia Antipolis is now a brand name, people here identify with the place, call themselves sophiepolitans – there is a sense of belonging, employees want to stay in the area. It is relatively easy to put up your own company, you will find a market, so the place is growing. There are strong anchor tenants, such as Amadeus, but also many small technology companies who sometimes start as vendors to the anchor tenants and then expand. It is not really a French place, but international to a very large degree.

There have been many attempts at building technology parks, and Sophia is one of the places that work. Much of it has to do with establishing a culture – many other areas are currently trying to invest a lot of money, but it is not working because there is not a culture of sharing, communicating and starting projects and companies.

One difference from Silicon Valley is that there are fewer venture capitalists and angel investors, which is indicative of Europe in general.

Question to Pierre Laffitte and Philippe Mariani: What is the role of government in the creation of technology parks and new companies?

Governments give money to big companies, in the US they have the small business act. We need something like that in Europe – bottom up, now top down. There is much good will from governments in Europe, but they have not found a good way to help small companies. Also, Europe has more interest in fundamental research, not the research between the industrial and the fundamental. We need to put together the managers with the people with ideas and research.

Q: Other differences between the US and Europe — what can we learn?
In the US, if your company fails, you are not considered a failure. In Europe, the banks will not finance you if you have had a company failure, which is why Europe has fewer serial entrepreneurs. We also have fewer business angels, and most of them are not so rich.

Q: Challenges for the future of Sophia Antipolis?

Two challenges in particular: One is developing ethics for a numerical (digital) society. There has been a transition from family capitalism to most short-termism. Now you have to make money in the face of short-termism, should be more open to other types of people than the shareholders only. We need to have another type of capitalism more about stakeholders than shareholders.

Secondly, there is an acceleration, the lifecycles are shorter and shorter. Our form of cross fertilization has worked for 40 years, but that won’t last, we have to reinvent a way to exist as an ecosystem. We are launching initiatives on ethics and “numeration”, cybersecurity, cyberhacking. want to become a think tank for exploring the digitalization, allowing it to continue to evolve – for one thing, the the government does not understand and the only thing they do is forbid it.

Q: What was the most important getting Sophia Antipolis started?

Having lots of friends in good positions who did not think it as stupid as many people thought! Innovation is always connected with difficulty to change, you have to convince people that it is positive. We wanted to develop something that did not create pollution, to create something connected with the future and the brain and to balance, not only to raw materials.

Q: How do you get get people together, so it is not just a park with businesses?

There are many ways to get people to come together. We asked companies not to have closed cafeterias, people having lunch together from different companies. We have the veteran companies meet with the new companies when they come in. We have common breakfasts, like small conferences. We also have clubs set up for various subjects and interest groups – there is even one called the Nordic Link for wealthy individuals from the Nordic countries who settle in the region and want to get involved in technology companies.

It doesn’t happen by itself, many cites think that it is just the structure is the enabler, The Foundation is here to do what the companies cannot do because they have no time. You have to push to make this happen, not easy because the benefit of the activity is hard to quantify. One thing that has not worked as we hoped is to have have cultural activities, tried to be the Florence of the 21st century, but because art was seen as an add-on, something separate, that did not take off as we had hoped.

And with that – a group picture:

group-with-laffitte

Elon Musk biography

Elon Musk: Inventing the FutureElon Musk: Inventing the Future by Ashlee Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an interesting biography because Elon Musk is an interesting person. Very capable description of the various business ventures (including a very succinct analysis of why and how Tesla is disruptive to the regular car industry, and, even more so, SpaceX to the space industry. But much of Musk as a person remains an enigma, partly because Musk keeps his cards close to his chest. This is an attempt to create a balanced account of Musk as a businessman and person, and it is worth reading to get the background of what Musk has done and how he has done it. But I doubt if I will reread it…

View all my reviews

Education as a way out of poverty

Found this video of my former classmate Sarah Mavrinac giving an impassioned speech on the need for education as a way out of poverty for migrant workers – and a plug for aidha, the charity she leads:

There is one person with the fortitude to put her money where her mouth is, I say…

Posner and Becker: Let the Big Three go bankrupt

Both Posner (who has changed his mind) and Becker agree that the Detroit Big Three automakers should be allowed to go bankrupt rather than continue to suck up subsidies and produce cars the world market do not want. It is hard not to agree on principle, and in this case, also in practice.

The thing is, if the big three go bankrupt, this does not necessarily mean that Detroit is finished when it comes to producing cars. The designers, workers and machinery will be put to use – if nothing else, other automakers as well as entrepreneurs will come in, buy up the assets (free of dept), and start to compete by producing the most popular models, licensed models from other auto makers, or new ones.

The failure of the Big Three is complicated: A disastrous decision back in the fifties or sixties to make pensions the responsibility of individual companies rather than the government, short-sighted management, ossified unions, overfocus on automation (GM in the 80s), bad product quality, old-fashioned or just bad designs, short-term product development, financial rather than real innovation, slow product development (7 years per new model vs. the Japanese 3-4 in early 90s), too much focus on the domestic market, focus on what you can measure (such as parts commonality) rather than new customer needs and segments, political lobbying as marketing, and on and on and on….

Why not just let it die, and have something more sustainable (both in business and environmental terms) rise from the ashes?

Masterstudies at Hawaii

I have just (well, last Friday) come back from the AACSB conference in Hawaii. As previously noted, I am on the board of a small but quickly growing company called Masterstudies.com, and this was our first “in the flesh” meeting with customers and partners. I tagged along on the theory that since I am an academic, I probably know how to talk to academics as well.

I am no stranger to academic conferences, but attending it as a vendor, not a regular participant or speaker, was new to me. I usually walk through the vendor section of a conference with downcast eyes, trying to not be cornered and pitched to. It was very interesting to stand there and see other people trying to avoid you – as a result, I have resolved to be much nicer to salespeople from now on.

That being said, the conference was a resounding success for us as a company – we talked to more than 60 universities and many of the other vendors and conference partners came over to our booth to congratulate us on the high interest and many compliments we got for our product. And I found it rather fun to market something – especially when it turned out we had a service that addressed a real need for many of these universities.

Recruiting blues
The problem with recruiting students is selectivity and quality control – you want students that are both good (in the sense that they have good grades and other qualifications) and also are environmentally compatible (for lack of a better term) with the other students. The first criterion is pretty easy to test for – grades and GMAT scores provide good indicators. Ensuring a proper mix of students for a program is harder.

For the prospective students, finding a school can also be very hard, since few students (at least outside the US) know more than a few business schools’ names and nothing about their quality. The result is a power law of prestige: At the top (“the fat head”), you find a few extremely well known schools (such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Wharton, INSEAD, LBS and IMD) with thousands of extremely well qualified people applying and very few getting in. Harvard, for instance, tend to receive 10 times as many applications as they have spaces, and of those people applying at least half of the people are good enough to make it through the program, if they only got in. At the top, finding students is not the problem – selecting them is.

For the students, another problem is avoiding the very bottom of universities: The outright frauds and degree mills that will sell you a certificate for a fee and an overview of your “life experiences”. (See this list for some suspects, but they tend to pop up like mushrooms after a rainy night.) A degree from a very weak place is not something you want to attach to your CV at all.

Most schools and most students fall somewhere in the middle, though: Decent schools providing good programs, and reasonably smart students prepared to do the required work to obtain a degree.  Masterstudies.com provides a service here by maintaining a database of quality-controlled schools which prospective students can search without having to go to each school’s web site, and quickly submit requests for information to interesting schools.

Selective international recruiting
If this was all we did, we wouldn’t provide much value, however. Most students can search in Google for business schools, and listings abound. The problem for schools trying to recruit internationally is not that they don’t get responses when they advertise on the Internet – it is that they get hundreds or thousands of “leads” from people who clearly are not qualified to be admitted, either because they don’t have the background or the finances.

In certain countries, such as a large African country beginning with N, most of the requests for information have nothing to do with getting an education: Enterprising men request glossy business school brochures to show women, saying that they are applying to a prestigious school and thus are attractive partners. Given the cost of an information package, this is clearly not a service most schools would want to provide.

To avoid this, we have the students put in their characteristics (education, work experience, managerial experience, age, desired industry they want to work in, etc.) and then match them to schools where they have a chance of getting admitted. The schools can filter the incoming leads so that they only get students they want, doing things such as selectively market in certain countries – say, perhaps they have enough people from Northern Europe or India, but want more from China or Southern Europe. Since we track where the prospective students log in, we can filter based on geography as well.

It works surprisingly well, which is why I am willing to be on the board. It is also very cost-effective: We charge the industry standard price for a lead (i.e., a prospective student), but the lead is qualified, meaning that every reference that comes from us has passed the hurdles the schools have set up themselves. That means that information packets go out only to students that actually a) have the requisite quality, and b) are in target markets the school want to serve.

(Of course, since I have read Shapiro and Varian, we also have a Pro package, where schools can pay a little extra and get promoted on the front page and so on – perfect for that newly launched MBA with a special twist that you secretly worry filling up.) As we start to build up good logs (we have had more than 100,000 unique visitors and growing per month since the new site launched in January) we should also be able to provide some pretty good and detailed overall statistics. For my own research, I am thinking about doing text analysis on the language in the program descriptions, to see what the main differentiating strategies of the schools are.

Check it out for yourself – though if you are a school, you should probably contact Linus, our Irish CEO (a former professional racing biker),  or Bernt, our VP of Business Development (who tried to teach me to surf in Hawaii, with decidedly mixed results) to get a peek under the hood, at the statistics and filtering pages which allow schools to select carefully and measure the results of their marketing.

And now, back to our regular programming….

Masterstudies.com

Masterstudies logo

I am involved (board member) in an exciting startup, a company called Masterstudies.com. We offer potential students a way to find suitable MBA and other Master level programs, and universities and business schools a way to find good students.

So far it has been a fun little project which has involved helping to specify functionality and interface, interacting with the very competent management, and talking to investors.

I think the company has something very useful to offer – there are literally millions of people around the world trying to find their way among the thousands of MBA and other Master level programs in business and related areas. One of the ways we differentiate ourselves from the competition lies in the way universities can specify what kind of leads they want – if you want details, contact our CEO, Linus Murphy.

We have spent the Fall making sure the product is good enough (partially with input from some of my students) and the database large enough (currently at 6,700 different programs) and now is the time to softly launch. There are still bugs to work out, but prospective students can now sign up, fill in their details, select schools and programs based on their preferences. Even though we have not marketed it at all, the traffic figures are promising, the number of leads sent per day is in the hundreds and it is rather exciting to see the details flying by – we are getting leads from all over the world.

I am rather optimistic that this company will succeed in providing value both to universities and students. In the words of our intrepid chairwoman, the student-to-university market is one of the few inefficient markets left, and it is high time someone does something about that. That’s us!

So – why don’t you check it out and tell me what you think?