Learning from the Asia Innovation Trek

Asia Innovation Trek 2016 explored Asia’s silicon valleys and education hubs in three countries – Japan, Taiwan and Korea. As a Master’s student in Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and with both technological background and experience in governmental regulation I had high expectations from this trek. I saw it as an opportunity to learn innovative entrepreneurship, and to be exposed to business leaders’ insights and thoughts, while enjoying a break from the hectic academic life in Boston.

The trek became a unique opportunity to learn about the “trendiest” industries (Hi-Tech, Fin-Tech & Bio-Tech), about ways to transform innovative ideas to corporate business models, and to explore the implications of governmental involvement and local culture.

Throughout the visit, it was clear that the entrepreneurial scene was actively drawing young talented individuals and/or groups, matching them with accelerators and hubs, arming them with the tools and appropriate mentoring in order to launch and cultivate successful startups. Most of the innovative ideas we were introduced to were hi-tech or internet related, and these were supported by hubs in different ways including grants funding, workspaces, professional advice and connection to relevant networks. Sometimes, support also came in the form of introductions to potential investors.

I was impressed by the ideas and the quality of the products I saw. I also enjoyed the culture and meetings with inspiring professionals; the latter were very insightful and enthusiastic to help the young generation to be involved with entrepreneurial ventures and be innovative. We were exposed to the financial aspects, the networking events and the educational efforts that are targeted to move forward, to achieve national goals and in order to be attractive in the international market.

In order to move forward, I felt certain barriers, such as the traditional thinking patterns and cultural barriers, needed to be overcome. Despite the progress made to date, the shift from the traditional, conservative, risk-averse way of thinking has yet to fully materialize, resulting in a tremendous amount of potential staying untapped in these regions.

Three key challenges stood out for me. As a citizen of Israel, or what is often referred to as “Startup Nation”, I realized the cultural and mental challenges in many of the countries we visited were much more apparent. I spoke about some of these entrepreneurial culture differences between the Israeli and Asian cultures in the Gyeonggi Center for Creative Economy & Innovation in Korea. In general terms, working in a big company and being like everybody else appeared to be the mainstay of the average worker in these Asian markets, while the Israeli worker restlessly pursues opportunities to become an entrepreneur, driven by dreams of success and prosperity. Achieving a higher education and getting a position as an engineer or a computer expert is not enough for the average Israeli university graduate; most are preoccupied with realizing the dream of “making it big” by commercializing a new technology or product. This motivation, coupled with the right network of contacts, allow some Israeli workers the access to the crucial ingredients on the way to forming a successful startup.

I personally wished there were more opportunities to explore social technologies – which is now a major global trend. Such initiatives are gaining momentum nowadays and are clearly valuable and desirable assets especially where there are major socio-economical gaps in society. These social ventures add a much needed dimension of morals and values to the pursuit of economic growth.

The last point to mention is that though in Taiwan and in Korea we met with leading women, it was disappointing to note the absence of women in our meetings in Japan. The limited participation of women in the labor market, especially in senior positions in the “Silicon Valley” industry, is something I believe worth investigated, discussed and dealt with in order to ensure fairness and equality in the labor force. It is needed to promote prosperity, especially while considering the benefits of gender diversity given Japan’s ageing population and the need for economic growth.

For me, the trek was an opportunity to expand my horizons, to learn and to be exposed to the local cultures in these three fascinating countries. I am truly appreciative of yet another chance to further my acquaintance and spend quality time with amazing, inspiring people of diverse backgrounds.