The Malta Independent 13 November 2019, Wednesday

Innovation hub – is it another Alice in Wonderland?

George M Mangion Tuesday, 15 October 2019, 16:00 Last update: about 28 days ago

With so much talk about artificial intelligence, IoT and blockchain technology in the air, one could believe that having a research and business innovation hub in Malta is just a fantasy/dream similar to when Alice was caught staring at the looking glass.

If planned well, this could prove to be a true catalyst for anchoring the existing business community and attracting new members. In fact, as part of its continuous engagement with start-ups, Malta Enterprise wants the month of October to be the month of start-up community. This is manifested by the launching of two activities - both of which focus on helping entrepreneurs, young people and investors.

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Malta Enterprise wants to launch the first edition of Start-up Express and Start-up Café - two initiatives that have in common the meeting, in a congenial atmosphere, of budding entrepreneurs. The Café concept is not new to Malta but it proudly welcomes SMEs to present their projects to accredited business angels, investors and crowd-funding media.

The Hon. Silvio Schembri said that, this year, the government is budgeting €2.2million for research and innovation to assist researchers, start-ups and consortia in research and innovation projects. The 2019 budget made a token gesture by giving two-year tax breaks to PhD students in the hope that the number achieving this high level each year will continue to grow. Ideally, more doctorates are attracted to populate our research centres in spheres such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and quantum learning.  Equally worth mentioning was the event held two years ago entitled 'Blueprint for Innovation' that was organised and sponsored exclusively by PKF at Microsoft Centre Skyparks. This was the precursor of the concept of bitpod sessions.

At the Microsoft Centre, PKF introduced Stas Gayshan - the MD of Boston-based the Cambridge Innovation Centre (CIC) which collaborates with the MIT University in Boston USA - as a keynote speaker. The event saw an extended morning session and showcased an expert line-up of speakers which included Gor Sargsyan, President of Qbiticlogic International, Silicon Valley, USA; Joe Woods, Director of Creolabs; Kenneth Farrugia, Chairman FinanceMalta; Ing Joe Sammut CEO LifeSciences Park and speakers from MCAST and the University Physics Department. Gor Sargsyan is the President of Qbitlogic International, Atlanta (USA) which is a US-based company specialising in building multi-purpose approaches and tools that synergise the power of artificial intelligence and quantum computing to help humans build and protect software systems across various industries.

What Malta lacks is an active ecosystem which glues together the fabric of innovation and design talents to create high value-added products.

In addition to bitpod sessions there will be complementary 'think-tank' sessions - a series of ad hoc working sessions in a casual format, once again aimed at provoking thoughts, ideas and novel discussion with local as well as international patronage.

Needless to say, the importance of honing and harvesting research and development in an international forum cannot be stressed enough in our ambition to service a centre of excellence in the advancing area of robotics, AI and all forms of IoT living. We have passed various pieces of legislation for DLT systems but we still have a long way to go before we can confidently say that we also have the coveted working ecosystem. Thanks to the good work and investment on the part of the private sector, one hopes that there will be progress early next year.

Strangely, there is a degree of resistance from certain government agencies which do not feel comfortable about supporting a nationwide ecosystem. This reluctance is ingrained to the extent that they label R&D as spurious and proclaim that - on its own - it does not generate either wealth or jobs. Critics lament the fact that mere sound bites during conferences such as Sigma and Delta will not bring in the missing millions in R&D. Such funding is crucial if we wish to make waves on this scene.  

Another drawback is the lack of venture capital. This month, we have read that some banks have been undergoing a de-risking exercise - commandeered by the European Central Bank - which has resulted in a number of account holders being given two weeks to withdraw their cash and close their accounts. This tightening of bank credit has the exact opposite effect to the easy credit provided by venture capital facilities. It is a fact that the best start-ups look for VCs that can plug them into broader ecosystems to provide additional leverage and extend their vision.

PKF considers that its efforts to attract a world-class organisation in this field of business accelerators have not come a moment too soon although, regrettably, its altruistic attempts to fan the feeble flame of innovation have not always been met with enthusiastic support from government agencies. It was three years ago that PKF, supported by a representative from Malta Enterprise, visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA to explore links for promoting Malta to host a potential business accelerator and/or Life Sciences hub for innovators, start-ups and entrepreneurs.  MIT is no stranger to accolades: it is rated as the world's best university in the fields of chemistry, economics, linguistics, materials sciences, nanotechnology and astronomy.  

Another interesting landmark is the Boston-based Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) which has opened new branches in St Louis - Missouri, Miami, Rotterdam, Warsaw and Sydney. The cherry on the cake was the fact that Android co-founder Rich Miner built his unique Google Android software at CIC.  It also has a non-profit sister, the Venture Cafe Foundation, which provides a forum for venture capitalists to scout and help fund new talent. 

What makes CIC so special is the fact that, as an innovation hub, it succeeded in attracting world-class start-ups which proved very supportive for the US economy through the generation of premium jobs and its high value-added inventions.  Now that the local economy is on the mend, and a modest surplus enthuses us on the horizon, we need to seriously plough back some of the fruits of our harvest into a proper ecosystem.

For that reason, the offer by HSBC Bank Malta of a €250 million business fund to support ambitious companies is propitious. Quoting Business Development head Michael Cordina, the fund enables investors, traders and businesses to connect potential customers in new markets and expand globally.

In conclusion, innovation is not an easy journey but we owe it to ourselves to take steps to keep ahead of the curve.

 

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The writer is a partner in audit and business advisory firm PKF

 


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