I gave up believing in unicorns long ago – but it seems that may have been too hasty. They are back. Don’t expect to catch a glimpse of something four-hooved, one-horned and fantastical however, the unicorns of this century are high-growth technology companies that reach a valuation above the magical 1 billion dollar mark. Entrepreneurs seek to tame and ride these modern unicorns – strictly no fairies involved.
The university where I work, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, was recently mentioned in the media as one of the world’s leading hubs (or should that be studs?) for unicorns. This reputation is well deserved with a range of great companies being created from research or by former students; Spotify is the most famous but its also worth remembering Skype, both of which are KTH alumni companies that have gone on to be unicorns. Excellent, especially as entrepreneurial activities are key to the future of Sweden’s economy.The university has been at the front of a cultural shift in Sweden, fighting to make entreprenureialism as respectable as working for Ericsson. The innovation support organisations, KTH Innovation and Stockholm Innovation and Growth (STING), have played essential roles in this change.
However, when visiting the incubators or offices of KTH Innovation and STING on the KTH campus, its easy to be disappointed. The bubbling entrepreneurs or talented business coaches you meet are in no way disappointing, rather, the buildings these two trail-blazing orgainsations operate in leave you flat – that is, if you can even find them.
Just as the unicorns of fairytales hid deep in enchanted woods, KTH’s innovation incubators are hidden deep in the university’s campus, so inconspicuous as to be invisible to all but the informed. Surely, when you want to show how to create unicorns out of research or set about causing a significant cultural shift, invisibility should be low on the list of your priorities? We are, after all, taking about science and business, not magic.
KTH Innovation is well aware of its “visibility challenge” on campus and has campaigned for many years for a higher profile location. As a service unit of the university, rather than an income generating unit, its calls for a better location have not been listened to. Frustrating; isn’t this exactly the type of activity KTH should advertise to current and potential students?
The good news is that the situation may be about to change. A more central and glass-fronted building will become available to KTH next year and the rumour is that KTH Innovation and STING will move in.
Whilst you can argue that starting a company is all about the people and that spaces don’t matter (the “garage start-up” hypothesis made famous in Silicon Valley) what’s going on now isn’t about single start-ups – or unicorns. Its about creating a new future – for research and for students – where the development of fantastic ideas in to fantastic companies is accepted and celebrated. Visible, inspiring locations on campus will help many more believe that they too can tame unicorns.