Welsh innovators embark on business mission to MIT

If there’s one place famed for being an innovation gold mine globally, it’s the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the university has a long history of churning out world-class technologists, entrepreneurs, innovations and research.

Back in March, some of Wales’s fastest-growing digital companies and entrepreneurs embarked on a Welsh Government business mission to MIT.

They included the likes of DevOpsGroup, ThinkOrchard, Pinacl Solutions, News Direct Wales, Design Reality and biosensors expert Diana Barbosa.

Spanning across four days, the event was an opportunity for these businesses to hear from world-class speakers, take part in interactive workshops, network with industry leaders on a one-to-one basis and exchange ideas to tackle common business problems.

It focused on disruptive technologies that are transforming the business world, such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, big data, robotics, virtual reality and the Internet of Things.

The trip was part of an ongoing Welsh Government programme of similar events that supports innovation-driven entrepreneurship linked to the BeTheSpark movement.

Entrepreneurial spirit

James Smith, co-founder and CEO of DevOpsGroup, said the biggest benefit of the trade mission was being exposed to the innovative entrepreneurial culture at MIT. His view is that it can transform the way we learn and work.

“Entrepreneurship is ingrained into the fabric of the university, and most of the students there go on to set up their own businesses with its backing,” he said.

“In Wales, universities can learn a tremendous amount from the model in place at MIT. I think the environment there inspires and enables the teaching of entrepreneurship.

“Many people in the UK believe that the entrepreneurial mindset is something you’re born with, but that’s certainly not true. It can be taught – you just need to establish a culture where people can learn and thrive.”

At DevOpsGroup, James and fellow co-founder Steve Thair laid the foundations for continual learning early on. He said the firm hires people who are passionate about innovating, solving problems and responding to new challenges.

“We’re teaching people that it’s okay to make mistakes, experiment and try new things, so long as they learn along the way. Our business has fostered a safe environment to enable those things,” continues Smith.

“Through the DevOpsGroup Academy, we are encouraging interns and graduates to develop an entrepreneurial spirit and are coaching them to make brave, bold decisions on the basis that some may work and some may not. Ultimately, we want them to flourish.”

A unique opportunity

Rob Bardwell, managing director of St Asaph-based telecommunications firm Pinacl Solutions, said the trip offered him a unique insight into the latest technologies and industry trends.
“It gave exposure to an environment that challenges your preconceived opinions and the way you think, gave direct access to the latest technology thoughts, and allowed discussions among the delegate group about similarities, differences, issues and potential solutions,” he commented.

Valerie Livingston, director of political monitoring organisation News Direct Wales, learnt that failure isn’t such a bad thing. “For me, the big difference between the business culture in Wales and the US was readiness with which American entrepreneurs are really willing to give things a go – and walk away when they don’t work out. It isn’t held against them forever,” she said.

But Livingston also found inspiration from her fellow travellers. “Spending time with five other Welsh business people, who I wouldn’t have known otherwise, was really valuable. Getting perspectives from peers in different industries really helped me to understand my challenges in different ways,” she added.

Accelerating business

Wyn Jones, creative director of Design Reality, believes that visiting MIT results in long-term individual and business success.

“There is a simple logic that sustaining demand from customers should give you the conditions for achieving continued business success,” he said.

“And spending time understanding who your customers are and how they want to evolve helps develop an unparalled understanding of how to innovate. If you don’t innovate, you are simply on a downward spiral.”

Economy Secretary Ken Skates added: “I am so pleased that as result of Welsh Government support, businesses like DevOpsGroup and Pinacl Solutions have had the opportunity to access the expertise and knowledge base of a world-renowned innovation and research institution such as MIT.

“From the feedback we have received, we know that the trip provided invaluable opportunities for the companies taking part to hear from world leaders in their field, to challenge their thinking and to build connections with key academics and wider networks.

“I hope the experience and the connections made will continue to benefit these companies and aid their growth plans in Wales for years to come.”

In June, BeTheSpark welcomed MIT and Sloan Management School fellow Michael Schrage to our Cardiff office to deliver an honest and thought-provoking talk to a closed audience of approx. 50 people on Innovation, Technology and Human Capital. You can watch the full video here.

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