Best and brightest ideas fly at Nordic Innovation Forum
By Nate C. Barretto
Photo By Ariel G. Raule
Intelligent, innovative, and co-creative minds converged in a forum yesterday at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) in Makati City to explore next-generation opportunities in business between Nordic states and the Philippines.
Dubbed as the Nordic Innovation Forum, the event was organized by the Nordic Chamber of Commerce (NordCham) in partnership with AIM in its 50th anniversary and in cooperation with the Embassies of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in Manila; the Embassy of Finland in Kuala Lumpur; and the Philippines Norway Business Council.
NordCham Philippines President Bo Lundqvist said the forum put together 150 key stakeholders of the innovation ecosystem: start-ups, universities, accelerators, incubators, corporations, investors, government, and NGOs.
What was in store for these stakeholders, were top-notch speakers echoing the various insights, successes, and industry solutions that may be enhanced for the purpose of spurring innovation and collaboration into the future.
Split in three parts, the talk sessions began with an introduction of the innovation ecosystem and how it has been a driving force behind, the products, brands and services from the Nordic states that made worldwide success such as Nokia, Ikea furniture, Spotify, Candy Crush, and Lego, to name just a few.
Counsellor Riku Makela, of the Innovation and Trade Affairs at the Embassy of Finland, pointed out how many of these 100-plus brands have been referred to as “unicorns” or start-up companies that have turned into multibillion-dollar enterprises.
One key to the formula of innovation and progress, Makela said, is government support through easy access to world-class education. He said that apart from sound policies, infrastructure, and legislation, big efforts are done by Nordic governments to boost education and research and development (R&D) to help businesses flourish.
“One of the key reasons why Nordics are so great in innovation is that we have had free access to world-class education for a long time. In rankings, Nordic countries are usually in the Top 10 for communications and research,” said Makela, who also holds a top position in the Nordic Innovation House in Singapore.
PH takes on the innovation challenge
On the part of the Philippine government, Undersecretary Rowena Cristina L. Guevara of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) underscored the Filipinos’ strength in R&D and how government has supported it with a budget increase of 6 percent over the last 8 years.
Given that 50 percent of the government budget for R&D is handled by the DOST, Usec. Guevara gave a quick rundown of the 17 areas of innovation that can be readily explored for Public Private Partnerships. These are: Biofertilizers and Plant Growth Enhancers; Feeds like protein-enriched copra meal; Smarter Approaches to Reinvigorate Agriculture as an Industry or SARAI; Aquaculture Productivity Technologies; Native Livestock Purelines Technology for climate-resilient livestock like pigs, ducks and chicken; Standardized and Clinically-tested Herbal Medicines through a program called Tuklas Lunas (Discovering Cures); Medical Implant, particularly the Axis Knee System; Biomedical Devices; Diagnostic Kit (Biotek-M Aqua Kit for dengue detection); Proper Nutrition products; Educational Tools such as the Versatile Instrumentation System for Science Education and Research (VISER); Water Treatment Materials like the “miracle powder” Vigormin; Solid Water-to-Energy Technologies; Sustainable Transportation like the Hybrid Electric Road Train; Artificial Intelligence (AI) through training and acquisition of new devices; the Universal Structural Health Evaluation and Recording System or USHER for buildings and bridges; and the Automated Real-time Monitoring System (ARMS) for water availability.
Guevara cited all of these research and development activities as innovation drivers of the Philippines under the “Investment Priority Plan 2017-2019” and pushed for the commercialization of new and emerging technologies and products of the DOST or government-funded R&D activities.
She hurled a challenge at the Nordic forum, calling on stakeholders to invest in the country’s treasure cove of R&D and science and technology (S&T) experts. She pointed out how significantly their numbers have grown as a result of DOST scholarships offered from high school, to college, to master’s and doctorate degree courses.
“I’ve shown you the ability of Filipino researchers to innovate. Starting 2015, we have been producing 500 masters and PhD graduates in science and engineering and we’ll have more graduates this summer,” said Guevara, herself a DOST scholar.
Then, she offered this compelling question: “Where do they (bright young minds) go? Most of the countries that invest in our country look at our graduates as cheap labor. We have potential innovators from our master’s and doctorate degree programs. You want to innovate? Look at our DOST graduates,” she said.
What corporate tells start-ups
The second part of the forum took to the stage executives representing the innovation ecosystem: Timur Mukazhanov, Tribe Leader for Nokia HetRAN DCM; Jesper Svenningsen, CEO of EGN (Executives’ Global Network) Thailand; Vasyl Davydko, co-founder & CEO of EduCredit; and Prim Payton, executive director of AIM’s Dado Banatao Incubator.
The panel discussion delved on “Bridging the Knowledge Gap between the Start-ups and the Corporate World.”
The speakers gave their perspectives on how to build a thriving innovation ecosystem and discussed best practices from the Nordic countries and how these are relevant in the Philippine context.
Mukazhanov said Nokia, which is the only telco to have set up an R&D center in the Philippines, is a testament to Usec. Guevara’s claim that Filipino experts can be co-creators. “Filipinos are very talented and keen on innovation,” he said, citing that since it established Nokia Manila TC in 2011, 920 Filipinos have been hired as direct employees with 20 innovation ideas produced in two hackathons.
To start-ups, the Nokia executive said there should be a drive to challenge one’s self and one’s company to be creative and have critical thinking in order to expand the company’s share of the market and not just remain at status quo. “You have to run if you want to stay where you are; but if you want to get somewhere, you have to run faster,” Mukazhanov said.
Invest in education
Davydko represents a start-up that is only six months old, but sees bright prospects in financing education in a country with the second largest population in Southeast Asia at 107 million.
Again, premium is given to education. He cited its relation to poverty incidence in parts of the world where a smaller percentage of the population graduate from college.
Davydko said he thinks of it as a wise investment to position his EduCredit in the Philippines at a time when it has one of the fastest growing economies.
Speaking for AIM, Payton introduced to forum participants the top business school’s Dado Banatao Incubator. “It is a hybrid DOST-PCIEERD technology business incubator and accelerator program that targets innovation-driven entrepreneurs whose businesses have the potential to impact all sectors of society in Asia,” he said.
What the Incubator does in the six-month entrepreneurship and innovation program is to drive inclusive and long-term growth for the Philippines by assisting early-stage start-ups with technology, science and engineering, and or alternative solutions to current, prevalent or emerging problems.
Payton said this can be achieved by way of specific and critical mentorship, providing space or “incubation rooms,” and giving access to AIM facilities.
Learn from mistakes
In relation to the aims of such a training program for entrepreneurs, Svenningson said that critical thinking is important and believes that it is first honed in school but developed further in a workplace that allows some room for mistakes. “Mistakes are okay as long as you learn (from them), because that allows creativity and critical thinking,” he said.
The Danish CEO started EGN Thailand in 2017 and his focus market is top and mid-level executives. EGN, which was first established in Denmark, is a trusted network of peer groups with 14,000 members globally and helps people and companies grow through an exchange of information and collision of ideas.
“Communication” and “collaboration” are big words in his line of work as various business organizations depend on them for innovation. “Where I don’t have the big skills, I go out and do the networking for strategic persons whether from start-ups or separate companies where I can gain those skills. It is a way of improving; of looking at these skills strategically (and) mapping it out (in order) to make it work (for your own business interests),” said Svenningson.
The big shift in technology
Moving on to the next panel discussion, dubbed “Dancing with the Giants,” the Nordic Innovation Forum gathered onstage Architect Abelardo Tolentino Jr., CEO of Aidea Philippines; Lars Wittig, Country Manager of Regus and Spaces Philippines; Prof. Christopher Monterola, PhD, who heads AIM’s School of Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship (SITE); and Ozzeir Khan, director of the Technology Strategy and Business Relationships Division of the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
Arch. Tolentino shared how a paradigm shift was necessary at his company to better address the more complex and elaborate demands in modern architecture and design. “The big shift was in 2005 when we departed from the 2D Autocad to be the first to have the virtual design and construction or 3D and the most innovative at that time,” he said.
With the pivot in technology, Aidea became the leader in integrated design and technology practice, enabling them to leverage on expertise, unique processes and technologies for a wider range of solutions only Tolentino’s firm could offer in the market. As such, his company attained exponential growth by 2009.
By 2011, many foreign firms took notice and Aidea was invited to various international conferences to present how they integrated technology in their design and end-to-end processes. It was in one of these conferences that Tolentino embarked on a game-changing collaboration with Danish and Swedish firms, thus, penetrating the Nordic market as BIM Equity and, soonafter, break into the Middle East, Asia, and the United States markets.
While sustaining its competitive advantage by creating programs for virtual collaborations with partners around the world, Tolentino said Aidea is expanding locally and moving up north where he sees a lot of Filipino talent in developing new technologies.
Aidea now enjoys 46th ranking in the Building Design’s World Architecture list of largest design practice.
Technology drives GDP Index – ADB
A similar shift has been taken by the Asian Development Bank in terms of support programs for countries in this region of Asia, according to Dir. Khan. And that is why the ADB has come up with the Digital Innovation Sandboxes Program.
“Before, ADB deals more with low-income countries; but as we look forward to the changes in Asia Pacific, now we deal more with middle-income countries and the game is to support middle-income countries to move up to higher-income countries,” he said.
“Technology and innovation plays a big role in moving the GDP index and ADB is focusing on emerging technologies as the key to connecting with the ecosystem of start-ups. Basically, digital innovation is at the heart of attaining the Digital Agenda 2030 and Strategy 2030 for Asia and the Pacific,” he said.
At present, the process requires a lot of experimentation in financing projects, but it paves the way for ADB to have direct engagement with start-ups. Khan said the Sandbox program presents the digital transformational growth seen in ADB sectors and aligns them with the innovation ecosystems throughout 67 countries.
“The collaborative experimentation tackles real challenges for real impact,” he said.
Academe responds to digital challenge
Facing the digital challenge, Prof. Monterola explained what the AIM-SITE program offers. As a scientist, technologist, entrepreneur and educator, he takes pride in having SITE as the first in the Philippines to have a program on innovation, data science, and entrepreneurship.
Monterola highlighted its the ACCeSs Laboratory, a data science lab featuring the country’s fastest AI supercomputer at the speed of 500 teraflops.
There are three programs at SITE: the Master of Science in Innovation in Business (MSIB); the M.S. in Entrepreneurship (ME); and the M.S. in Data Science (MSDS). These programs do not come cheap, and the reason why they can be offered at AIM is because companies are willing to sponsor their students, he said.
Right now, SITE’s MS in Data Science program is ranked No. 3 in Far East Asia, ahead of any business school in Singapore, Korea or Japan. Key to this was bringing back to the Philippines some of the talents that can make a difference in this field.
Prof. Monterola said the programs have not only attracted the brightest students, but also strategic partnerships like with Acer’s Stan Shih who has provided continuous support in various SITE initiatives.
“Like with Acer, we have been attracting partners from various industries and government agencies. (That is why) 34 percent of our students in these programs are fully-sponsored. The tuition for this cannot be afforded by an ordinary Filipino, so we see big companies pick from among our students someone to sponsor,” he said.
Doing business together
Another interesting presentation was that of Mr. Wittig, the country manager of Regus and Spaces (www.regus.com.ph) whom panel moderator, Joan Yao, described as “a Filipino at heart.”
“Doing business together is what we’re all about,” Wittig said in his opening statement. And he has seen the success of this formula of providing workspaces not just in the Philippines, but also in Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Flexible workspace as a service is what his company has revolutionized. The figures speak well for its niche in providing co-working places with more than 2.5 million people benefiting in their businesses, to date.
More than just providing a space for productivity, Wittig explained that the work spaces they design become communities that match every startup’s business needs. He backs up this point by offering a contrary to the adage that “knowledge is power.” Wittig said: “Knowledge is NOT power. Powerful? Yes. But it is SHARING INFORMATION that is the true source of power.”
By building these communities out of work spaces, he added: “Never has generations, industries, start-ups, and multinationals had so much to share.”
It is in this community atmosphere as has been evident, for example, at Spaces at the World Plaza Building in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, that encourages the spirit of collaboration, security, and ease in a workplace environment.
It is in the same spirit that the Nordic Innovation Forum has been an overall success, with happy partners and sponsors mingling about for prospective collaborations in various fields.
Gracious enough to join stakeholders in the interactions during intermissions were their excellencies, Amb. Harald Fries of the Embassy of Sweden, Amb. Jan Top Christensen of the Embassy of Denmark, Amb. Petri Puhakka of the Embassy of Finland, and Amb. Bjørn Jahnsen of the Embassy of Norway.
The event was supported by Norden with event partners Trends & Concepts (www.trendsandconceptsinteriors.com), AIM, Ideaspace (www.ideaspacefoundation.org), and KMC; as well as community partners, Nordic Innovation House Singapore and TechShake (www.techshake.asia); and sponsors Ortigas & Company (www.ortigas.com.ph); Sprout Solutions (www.sprout.ph), and Pacific Cross Philippines (www.pacificcross.com.ph).