Where Einstein Meets Edison

MIT-Global Startup Workshop 2012

MIT-Global Startup Workshop 2012

Jan 29, 2012

The Global Startup Workshop (GSW) is a MIT-led initiative that has been organizing annual entrepreneurial conferences around the world since 1998 and is officially a student organization. The difference between the GSW and a standard entrepreneurial conference is the emphasis on local boosting of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. So far, the GSW has covered all 6 continents, with conferences in some of the most trendy entrepreneurial cities, as well as non-intuitive places: Seoul, Reykjavik, Cape Town, Trondheim, Madrid, Buenos-Aires, Abu-Dhabi, Beijing, Bologna, Melbourne, Cambridge, Seville and Singapore.  This year’s conference, held from March 28-30, 2012, is in Istanbul.

The GSW originally spun off the MIT 100K business plan competition. Nevan Hanumara, 2012 GSW Lead Organizer, says: “We thought this [MIT 100K] is a great way to get people started with this type of entrepreneurial business plan competitions. After a few years, the mission broadened to expanding the entrepreneurial mindset and infrastructure in these countries that have the potential to do so.”

Over the years, the GSW has become a prestigious platform. In a process similar to bidding for the Olympics, organizations from different countries compete to attract the GSW each year. “The bid can be submitted by universities, governments or local entrepreneurial incubators. We supply some of the content and we help them get the rest, but we want them to prove their commitment and show the right active mindset,” says  Shaun Bamforth, one of this year’s organizers.  After GSW receives a general initial bid with high-resolution details on the final proposal, a small team travels to the finalist countries and looks for three main elements: Passion and incredible interest in entrepreneurship, ability to move from idea to logistics, and a fine balance between all the local parameters, such as politics and economics, allowing as many diverse participants as possible.

Hanumara adds, “This year, Turkey was selected because they are a heavily young, fast-growing economy, sprouting universities—all factors that help nurture a potentially great entrepreneurial infrastructure. In a location that plays with East and West it does that very well and with style. It can be a bridge.” According to Hanumara, Turkey is showing all the right signs of a budding entrepreneurial catapult: “Turkey has lots of educated people, who want to do more with their lives. What we want to do is get people who are thinking of entrepreneurship and make them start doing entrepreneurship. The big difference between GSW and other conferences is that we have our speakers wish they had more time to stay with us, versus keynotes who just give their speech and leave.” The organizers try to leverage this passion toward high impact networking sessions, scheduling almost as much time for networking as for the talks themselves. In an awakening environment like Turkey, this is crucial.

According to Hanumara and Bamforth, the Turkish government is not yet fully on board with the entrepreneurial revolution, although they have been increasingly liberalizing their economy and emphasizing the role of the private sector. “Our first partners for the Turkey effort were the local MIT Enterprise Forum and Ozyegin University, which was founded in 2007 by one of the most well-connected entrepreneurs in Turkey and our main contact there. Another partner is Sabanci University. Our method has always been to start with a core partner and then grow around them, relying on them at first to bring in others. By now, we already have a significant number of registered attendees, from almost 30 countries. Half are international registrations and half are local. People show up all the way from Saudi Arabia. We just talk about it everywhere in the region and with everyone who has connections. The Turkish do its own public relations and manage to get lots of press coverage. We try to make it clear that it’s not a MIT closed event.”

This year, the GSW will try to focus on the main issues that impact the Turkish entrepreneurial ecosystem. “What should be the role of the government? We want to have a panel about that. Should they invest more in subsidized incubators? Maybe they should just stay out of it? We want to ask these questions in an open forum,” says Hanumara. Other issues are the conflict between religion and secularism or the shift of traditional resources away from the few aristocratic families. Do these families see the potential of collaborating with the new educated generation, or are they threatened by a potential new balance of power? Hanumara and Bamforth admit that they do not have the answers to all these questions, “but we definitely want to bring them up. We cannot directly fix the problems with the infrastructure, but we try to make connections between people who can. It is all about connecting people with the funding and getting all the players to come together. In a country like Turkey, this might not happen otherwise. Angels, VCs and other sources of funding are very accessible in the US, but in over there, no one really knows about such options. If they [the investors] teach the entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas and show how good they are, they [the investors] can convince the rich families that this is a mutually beneficial business model and that they can make money off of this. A lot of the people are not aware of the business plan concept or how to right a good one. We want to teach them how to reach out to funders.”

On the issue of government involvement, Hanumara says, “Whether you think the government should pay for startups or not is a philosophical question, but the fact is that they do not do it.  They [the government] have one of the lowest start-up investment portfolios in the world. A lot of the money is concentrated with a few families and if we can get the entrepreneurs to network with those families it can trickle to them.  It is not going to be the government that will create that connection; it will have to be private initiatives. That’s how it works all over the world. It’s the best way to get people out of poverty, which is what the Endeavor organization, one of our partners, focuses on. In my opinion, this funding will only come from the private sector. The government hasn’t been effective at doing this.” Selcuk Kiper, for example, is one of those private sector change agents, working relentlessly to change the situation and boost Turkish entrepreneurship. He is a local entrepreneur himself, co-chair of the Turkish Chapter of the MIT Enterprise Forum and Middle-East President of BMB United construction company. He was very involved in putting together the Turkish bid and helped the GSW organizers with all his local and international connections.

This year’s conference promises an interesting schedule: panels, discussions and workshops on topics such as how to get funding, greentech, cleantech, bootstrapping and transitioning from founder to CEO. “We try to have open discussions, with no tiptoeing. In South Africa we held discussions about its past, and we will continue to do so in Turkey,” says Hanumara. Some other new features include: a product demo day, a poster competition (for academic research), panels with venture capitalists and young entrepreneurs; a panel with older entrepreneurs; a ‘failure panel’ dealing with reasons and lessons learnt; and a fellowship program, designed to get people that have great ideas and will benefit from getting to the conference. In addition, they plan to continue the tradition of hosting unique networking events, such as last year’s cocktail event in a floating restaurant on the Korean Han river or at a power plant in Iceland. Bamforth promises that “Istanbul is very attractive for all the events around the conference.” One of the ideas for this year is to have a mixer in one of the region’s palaces.

The MIT-GSW student organization hopes all these efforts will help the news of this conference to trickle to other countries in the region and attract attendees from not only Turkey, but also Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Arab countries.

Stav Davis