Thoughts on Turkey and entrepreneurship

Turkey has realized that, as a country, they need to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship into the fabric of their economy. This is not a uniquely Turkish initiative – this is occurring all over the world as I have seen in my travels to Portugal and Algeria to give seminars in entrepreneurship. I recently returned from Turkey where I was on a similar mission. As usual, I was accompanied by my Carnegie Mellon colleague, Tara Branstad, Associate Director of CMU’s technology transfer office, Center for Technology Transfer and Enterprise Creation (CTTEC). We are usually brought to a country through a partnership between a US organization, sometimes CMU, sometimes the federal Department of Commerce’s Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP); this time for Turkey it is the Association for University Technology Managers (AUTM) that has brought us here in conjunction with a Turkish initiative, ÜSİMP, University-Industry Cooperation Centers Platform.

USIMP Established in 2007, and currently boasting a membership of 49 institutional organizations from across Turkey, including industry and universities, USIMP aims to develop national strategies around university-based technology transfer, innovation and entrepreneurship. USIMP has partnered with AUTM to host several workshops including ours. This last trip was Tara’s third visit to Turkey to teach about tech transfer; it was my second visit to Turkey but my first as a teacher of entrepreneurship.

Technology transfer and university-industry collaboration are not new in Turkey (some date back to 1995). More recently, the state has finally recognized the need to stimulate and expand these activities to create economic development. In parallel with the increased awareness across Europe of the need for innovation and entrepreneurship, Turkey is now funding technology transfer as well as providing new grant funding for early-stage entrepreneurs. Even though historically, the Turks played a major role in the development of civilization, including the inherent risks, the country lacks a vibrant ecosystem to stimulate entrepreneurship, a gap that the government is trying to fill for the common good.

Firat UniversityWhat we did. We conducted intensive two-day courses at Firat Üniversitesi, Elaziğ, and Gazi Üniversitesi, Ankara, Turkey’s capital. At the first introductory workshop in Elaziğ, we had about 50 participants from multiple universities across the country. The second more advanced workshop had about 30 participants, again from multiple Turkish universities. Our role is to educate the nascent university technology transfer community on principles and best practices around technology transfer and entrepreneurship. We used a combination of lecture, discussion, exercises, and student presentations to maximize interactive learning. I believe that we created engaging and insightful experiences for everyone involved – so they told us in many different ways!

Gazi Technopark, Ankara While a few of the technology transfer offices (TTOs) in Turkey have been around for a few years, many of them are brand new – less than six months old. They want to learn the ropes from the experienced US: what to do, what not to do, pitfalls, challenges, and how to achieve success. The charge – and the opportunity – for Tara and me is to help this country create optimal policies to encourage and stimulate innovation, entrepreneurship and industrial relationships at their universities. Wow.

My insights. If I could create my own policy mantra it would be: “make it simple, easy, fun.” Because anything that makes it more difficult to do the already almost impossible – start new successful ventures – is anathema. Already, the Turks are at a disadvantage because high-growth technology-oriented entrepreneurship may not be in their DNA like it is in ours. Our country was founded on capitalism; the idea of providing a solution to a marketplace need runs deep inside our consciousness. In Turkey I noticed that they seem much more dependent on the government as a customer than individuals or businesses. For example, when the five teams that we taught in Ankara presented their business model canvases, based on technology/product opportunities that I had given them as case studies, almost all of them listed the government as the prime customer. In healthcare, this may be a function of the socialized/single-payer system. But you would still need to include doctors and patients as customers/stakeholders. Too much focus on the government as a customer is an attitude that has to change if the TTOs want to be successful. They need to help their inventors identify market needs, find customers, and then make the translation from invention to innovation to commercialization, as I show in the flow chart below.

Fig1 Research to commercialization B&W

It’s a bit frustrating that none of the people that we trained for these relatively new TTOs in Turkey have any direct experience with startups. Some of them have industry experience, which is positive, but they need experienced business folk in those offices to guide the first-time academic entrepreneur in the commercialization process. USIMP is smart to add to its own expertise and obtain some outside help and guidance – which is why we were there. That’s a great step in the right direction.

My recommendations. Below I list a few, broad suggestions to help Turkey get it right the first time.

1) Training. Instituting a rigorous training program is a good idea. However, just sitting and listening and doing a few in-class exercises does not assure that the new TTO professionals have internalized the message(s) or really learned. I would apply the business model canvas approach and make them have a particular strategy based on having actually talked with their customer, which, in this case, are the students, researchers, and professors at their universities. The more interaction, the better.

2) Partnerships. I think that newly minted TTO professionals would benefit from exchanges with US universities and even at other universities within Turkey. I also think that keeping a strong linkage through USIMP is a great idea so that you can have events, training, conferences and other venues where TTO personnel can interact – and learn from – each other.

3) Early examples. There is no replacement for having experience – just doing it. The university TTO offices should strive to create some startups and licenses to existing companies as soon as possible if for no other reason than to use as case studies – what worked, what didn’t and why.

4) Favorable policies. Too often universities are under the impression that technology transfer is a profit making business. This is rarely the case. In the US, few universities do well enough at technology transfer to please the financial people. What’s more important is to realize the long-range positive impact on the economy of stimulating and supporting entrepreneurship. In addition, those who give back the most to universities in the US, guess what? They are usually entrepreneurs. So, treat them with respect and provide them with the nurturing that is required to make them successful so that they, in turn, can mentor others and help you achieve your goals of more and better innovation and entrepreneurship for all.

Outside of Elazig, Turkey

5) Realistic goals. Last, but not least, it is vital that the country, universities and all of the ensuing organizations and initiatives around university-based innovation and entrepreneurship establish realistic and achievable goals. Setting unrealistic goals that have to be reset after a few years of non-compliance gets you nowhere fast. You can still aim high, achieve great impact, and really make a difference, but make sure you are not setting short-term unrealistic goals that are impossible to achieve and therefore set you back before you are even out of the gate. Don’t lose the race before it has even begun.

Go Turkey! Go USIMP! I can’t wait for my return visit to help you get to the next level of how Turkish TTOs can be the cradle of entrepreneurship across the country.

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