You can’t build an innovation economy on ‘accidental entrepreneurs’ alone

You can’t build an innovation economy on ‘accidental entrepreneurs’ alone

Note: This post is a rebuttal to an article originally published in The Globe and Mail. This letter was published in an abbreviated version in The Globe and Mail today. Below is the full letter.

Neil Seeman channels Ayn Rand in extolling the virtues of “accidental” entrepreneurs in the Weekend Report on Business (August 22, B5), and presents himself as the glorious embodiment of this subspecies. Seeman also asserts that entrepreneurial heroism is mostly a familial trait, and has nothing to do with “taxpayer-funded programs.” This has to be true, he adds, because “one of Canada’s most well-respected seed investors” said so.

One might ignore all this odd theorizing, but the Globe topped off Seeman’s article with a large photo of the MaRS logo. The idea, it seems, is that MaRS embodies “co-created” entrepreneurship—the evil twin of “accidental” entrepreneurship.

Alas, that glib distinction is false, as are most of the generalizations in the article. Seeman declares, for example, that government has nothing to do with technology entrepreneurship in Israel and Silicon Valley. Both those eco-systems were built over time by major public sector co-investment. Both depended from the start on a flow of talent and ideas out of publicly-funded institutions and research labs. Given those realities, it is ironic that Seeman claims ‘the co-created entrepreneur model has flopped’ all over the planet. The reality is that most co-funded models are relatively new, and as they succeed, private money will displace public funding.

That’s certainly the case in Israel, a small country that built 28 publicly-funded incubators between 1990 and 1993. The public presence has been scaled back as privately-financed incubators have taken hold. The same thing is occurring in Toronto today as MaRS fills its Phase 2 building with a view to early private re-financing of that project.

Meanwhile, Shanghai, with roughly the population of Canada, has over 100 business incubators—many larger than MaRS and heavily funded by the public sector. It seems that the Chinese, like others, aren’t leaving the development of their innovation hotspots to “accidental entrepreneurs.”

Fundamentalists like Seeman are welcome to call that model ‘co-creationism.’ The faithful can call it intelligent design. And pragmatists of all stripes will probably just call it sensible evolution.