Ecosystems from Scratch cropped

Innovation Ecosystems, from Silicon Valley to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

When it comes to promoting innovation, why do some communities flounder while others flourish?

Venture capital experts Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt, authors of The Rainforest, think they have an answer.

The magic of Silicon Valley, Northern California’s seeming utopia of innovation, isn’t unique, but it is rare. That isn’t because recreating such an environment hasn’t been tried. It has, many times, in many places.

Following the popularization of Michael Porter’s cluster theory, people around the world in government, nonprofits, and academia have been trying to weave together the threads of Henry Etzkowitz’s triple helix to drive regional development. Governments have tried to bring companies big and small together with universities and local businesses to create a self-seeding ecosystem.

But Hwang and Horowitt argue that the cooperation of governments, academia, and the private sector alone is not enough to create ecosystems of innovation, or “Rainforests.” Innovation thought leader Vivek Wadhwa concurs: These efforts inevitably fail, because entrepreneurial ecosystems simply can’t be built from the top down. What is needed, and what governments can’t create, is a culture of information-sharing and mentorship, which is what has made Silicon Valley a success.

One of The Rainforest‘s big lessons is that stakeholder buy-in isn’t enough. Efforts to grow the ecosystem must be deliberate and organized, and must focus on individuals.

These efforts require starting fresh. Silicon Valley is a land of transplants; its pioneers left old ties behind, forging brand-new networks and bonds. They threw out the old rulebook, and an organic innovation ecosystem bloomed.

The Innovation Ecosystem at KAUST

What’s happening at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology isn’t so different from what happened in Silicon Valley. We’ve built a new university from the ground up. And we, too, are a community of newcomers, uniting the world’s brightest students with world-class researchers from everywhere from Argentina to Zagreb.

Here at Economic Development, our staff is equally diverse. We hail from different continents and a variety of educational and professional backgrounds, but we’re dedicated to a shared mission and an active decision to promote collaboration within ED, within the university, and with our partners in the Kingdom.

We don’t expect to recreate Silicon Valley here, but it’s a model we’re happy to take a few cues from. That’s why we’re determined to do all we can to help Saudi Arabia’s innovation ecosystem grow and flourish.

How? Just as baking a cake is more than tossing ingredients into a bowl, building a Rainforest requires a precise recipe—and there’s one key element that a Rainforest simply can’t grow without.

In my next post, I’ll share what that ingredient is, and where it’s working here at KAUST.


1. Hwang, V. W., & G. Horowitt. (2013). The Rainforest. Retrieved from www.innovationrainforest.com.

2. Porter, M. (2000). Location, Competition, and Economic Development: Local Clusters in a Global Economy. Economic Development Quarterly, 14(1), 15-34.

3. Etzkowitz, H., & L. Leydesdorff. (2000). The Dynamics of Innovation: From National Systems and Mode 2 to a Triple Helix of University-Industry-Government Relations. Research Policy, 29(2), 109-123.

4. Wadhwa, V. (2012). The Magic Happens When You Focus on People (Innovations Case Commentary: Start-Up Chile). Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, 7(2), 25-27.

How do you Grow a Rainforest in the Desert?

So you want to promote a culture of innovation where you live and work? The first thing you need to know: it’s not easy. Communities around the world have been struggling for years to recreate the magic of places like Silicon Valley, where fresh ideas seem to spring up like weeds. In their new book The Rainforest, venture capital experts Victor W. Hwang and Greg Horowitt lay out a framework for building innovation ecosystems. The authors reveal that although a community may have many features in common with successful ecosystems, if it’s missing one key element, they’re almost certain to fail. The missing ingredient in many of these attempts? It’s one that causes many relationships to fail, in business and in life—It’s trust. Trust often isn’t a value championed in the competitive, fast-paced world of business. But when it comes to growing innovation, it couldn’t be more important. Hwang and Horowitt call for tribes of trust, meaningful links with people or groups different from oneself. Diversity (of cultures, academic fields, and career backgrounds) tends to yield more innovative solutions than does homogeneity. The problem is that this isn’t how we tend to operate: Dissimilar groups are often less trusting of one another than groups with lots in common. But in Rainforests, there are unique behavior protocols that enable people to overcome their innate mistrust and forge new ties among dissimilar people.

Making Innovation Our Own

Trust and collaboration are a huge part of what Economic Development at KAUST is all about. Here are three ways we’re growing trust:

Leading by Example

We don’t have all the answers, but we’re doing our best to take the first steps toward planting the seeds of a new Rainforest in Saudi Arabia, by practicing openness and trustworthiness ourselves. We model trust by being forthright: by saying what we mean and meaning what we say. We hope that by modeling this approach, feelings of openness and trust will spread.

Encouraging Sharing of Ideas

One of the best ways to engender trust (besides modeling it oneself) is by connecting people. Let’s say there are two people who are very different from each other, but whom I know and trust. I see that they could benefit from knowing one another. They trust me, and I trust them. By connecting them, I have extended that trust, creating another link in the self-organizing system that contributes to the whole.

Hwang and Horowitt talk about people who connect others as keystones of the innovation ecosystem. A keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the apogee of an arch, which serves to lock the structure in place, giving it integrity. But in the innovation ecosystem context, an environmental biology definition may be more fitting. A keystone is also defined as a species of plant or animal that produces a major impact (as by predation) on its ecosystem and is considered essential to maintaining optimum ecosystem function or structure.

KAUST has world-class faculty, staff, and students and strong relationships with government and business partners. It’s our job to help all of these groups interact in meaningful ways, by sharing our contacts, encouraging collaboration on new technology development, and getting inventions licensed.

Approaching Technology Licensing Proactively and through a Local Lens

Other technology transfer offices might be surprised by the way we do things, and by how seriously we take our economic development mission. This is part of meaning what we say, and saying what we mean. We are working toward streamlined agreements that accelerate the licensing process.

Sometimes, these inventions are in their early stages. Often, they pose high risks. But investing in local innovation builds region-wide tribes of trust, and that’s exactly what we’re after.

A Rainforest doesn’t grow overnight. It takes the right conditions, the right efforts, and a little bit of luck to succeed. We’re optimistic about where the Kingdom is headed, we’re excited to have the chance to watch it grow.

Reblogged with the permission of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology http://www.innovation.kaust.edu.sa

3 thoughts on “Ecosystems from Scratch

  1. Pingback: Rainforest Rev: Innovation Church and Supporting Start-Ups | the innovation rainforest

  2. Pingback: Inclusive Innovation | Maria Douglass

  3. Pingback: Rainforest Makers Network | Maria Douglass

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