The evolution of innovation
If Wireless Innovation does its job well, it will change beyond all recognition in a couple of years. As a focal point for wireless and mobile companies in Scotland, seeking to develop their businesses, the organisation is not just a business advisor but an incubator helping to hatch new ideas and new companies – and a new approach to innovation itself..…
Even though the sign says "Wireless Innovation," the name tells a very small part of the story. According to Senior Innovation Manager Alisdair Gunn, "the initiative is not just about new wireless and mobile solutions but also about supporting the growth of a new generation of entrepreneurs and inventors." And what Wireless Innovation is doing for the wireless and mobile sector, Gunn says, is already inspiring similar initiatives in other emerging sectors – for example, Wellness and Health Innovation.
Wireless Innovation itself also has to keep up with industry trends and evolve at the same rapid pace. Established in 2003 by Innovation Centres (Scotland) Ltd, with funding from the Scottish Government’s Economic Development Agency, Scottish Enterprise and the European Union, the initiative started with a six-month pilot study, "to identify the range of market failures that were curtailing the growth of companies in this global, high-technology sector."
"From the outset," says Gunn, "we wanted to clearly understand and articulate the specific issues preventing the development of new applications as well as identify the barriers behind the routes to market. Ultimately, this boiled down to starting with a clean sheet and developing a portfolio of focused specialist support for companies."
The emergence of a new industry also required a new business approach. "At an early stage we quickly learnt that many of the emerging companies were struggling to understand what were the important changes taking place in the wireless and mobile markets, and how to translate this impact successfully back into their product and business propositions," says Gunn.To overcome these issues, Gunn and the newly formed advisory team set out to devise, develop and implement a range of specialised market analysis/intelligence, product development and business development services that were "created from a bottom-up and top-down approach."
Because Wireless Innovation "spoke the same language" as the people they dealt with, more and more companies gradually gained the confidence to access their support services. And according to Gunn, the key to success was creating a team of expert advisors from industry who had years of experience in marketing, product and business development, working with the major global players – in Gunn's case, Hewlett-Packard, Agilent and Philips.
During the initial pilot stages, Wireless Innovation made over 120 contacts, by holding thought-leadership seminars and other events, and directly engaged with about 30 companies. At the end of the six-month pilot, the new team submitted their findings, which secured further funding from Scottish Enterprise.
But when Gunn is asked now what the sector will look like within a few years, and what types of clients will need the same kind of support, he says: "We are at the cusp of the Digital Wave. Previously, the computer, mobile phone and internet were standalone technologies, but that is no longer the case. They are converging across several vertical markets. The mobile phone is the new handheld computer."
Nobody can say with any certainty what the future will bring, but some trends are clearer than others. "Wireless & Wellness" may be one of the next major trends, for example, but it’s hard to know what the new health-care devices will look like or how fast consumers will adopt them, says Gunn. "There will also be much more convergence in areas like broadcasting, advertising and digital media," he adds, "but predicting what will be the next high revenue-generating trend in the wireless and mobile sector can be guesswork for companies. We can help reduce the guesswork with our experience, expertise and market intelligence."
The wireless and mobile market has grown from virtually nothing to around $1 trillion within 20 years, says Gunn, with 4.6 billion subscribers and 1.7 billion handsets a year being shipped by 2011. Eight years ago, the industry was still relatively embryonic, and some ideas which may have seemed obscure at that time are mainstream today. So, faced with this pace of change and highly complex economic conditions, how do you identify the companies and ideas that are most likely to succeed?
Gunn believes that Scotland would undoubtedly benefit from attracting more "anchor companies" like BBC, HP, Oracle, Agilent, Dell, O2, T-Mobile, RIM or Freescale, who already have an established presence in Scotland. This would bring decision makers and market influence closer to Scotland, and give graduates a structured approach to developing their business and product development skills rather than heading abroad.
But Gunn also recognises that an anchor investor would not be a cure-all, because business models and markets are changing so quickly. For example, he explains, after the fall-out from the dotcom explosion, many large global players changed their approach to research and development, focusing on mainstream products rather than way-out ideas.
Instead of jealously guarding their products at all costs, the large corporations are now more comfortable with "open innovation models," and happy to work with external partners like the young, creative companies now emerging in Scotland. And this is exactly where Wireless Innovation comes into the picture, bringing new partners together, and acting as a trusted advisor with the infrastructure needed to support the young companies. "We are a catalyst, creating a critical mass of companies. This critical mass attracts the Global Players," says Gunn, adding that our home-grown SMEs can play a similar role to the large corporations by retaining our home-grown talent, with a little help from Wireless Innovation.Do the large corporations cherry-pick all the best ideas and talent? According to Gunn, they now see a greater value in cultivating external partners who have much more freedom to be innovative and "think out of the box." Collaboration is replacing competition as the secret of business success in the emerging digital markets. Acquisitions, partner development programmes and sector-specific venture-capital funds each enable big players to leapfrog their rivals, much faster than doing all R&D in-house.
Wireless Innovation is a gateway to the industry in Scotland, with no commercial stake in the companies it works with – just a passionate interest in the sector’s success as a whole. When an overseas company is looking for partners in Scotland, Wireless Innovation is a good place to start, because it "filters" and presents the best talent. "We see a lot of very different companies and get to know which are the ones to watch," says Gunn.
As one of the founders of Wireless Innovation, Gunn can be proud of the organisation’s achievements to date, but he is also aware of the challenges lying ahead. He thinks growth will come in areas like Cloud Computing, Energy Conservation, Wellness/Health, Digital Media, Security and the Environment, with wireless solutions becoming increasingly pervasive in every area.
"Existing companies will have to upskill," he says, "and there will be more cross-fertilisation between different sectors." Gunn also believes that Wireless Innovation will have to be as agile as the companies it works with, reinventing itself all the time.