The Bay Area Innovation Tour

innovatour08How would you translate the innovation culture in the SF Bay Area to a group of international engineering students? Would that include an entrepreneur, a garage, and a creative mind? And the project manager? When invited to organize a road trip to study the SF Bay Area’s role in innovation and technology, I immediately googled the Silicon Valley map. The consulting assignment involved taking the group of students and professors on a Ten Day Innovation Tour in the SF Bay Area. Since the Bay Area has long been considered a great source for entrepreneurship and innovation, I was excited about the prospect of showing off the best and brightest minds that could inspire.

After weeks of planning, making phone calls, and sending emails, I boarded the plane from Paris with 24 twenty-something engineering students who were ready for a learning adventure that would kick-off their masters program and academic year. Sponsored by the ENPC Department of Industrial Design and Innovation, a Grande Ecole and leading university in France, the trip’s mission and theme focused on business innovation and technological innovation in a global economy.

The tour took off with the fast pace and packed schedule typical to Bay Area work life – the French troupe held on tightly for the ride while taking in as many impressions, information, and inspiration their minds could possibly absorb. There was a two-day immersion in innovation where entrepreneurs and corporate leaders shared their advice on designing and managing new products, processes, and services. Then we took a road trip from San Francisco to Silicon Valley to Berkeley where we visited participating companies on site in order to better understand organizational challenges and opportunities in managing innovation.

What were some of the takeaways? In the words of one participant, “the California life, work style and ways of thinking brought us new inspirations”. From Apple’s view of innovation as ‘purpose and being’ to People-on-the-Go’s work productivity practices, the participants were exposed to the cultures and work styles that create great solutions. From education to application, we had the opportunity to view Stanford Design School’s learning approach in design thinking to visiting leading design firms IDEO and Frog Design. Collaboration and creativity were key elements to both firms work cultures, where IDEO had developed their own unique design cycle and brainstorming process.

Sun and Symantec showed us how to foster internal innovation through knowledge networks and R&D teams. While the Plug & Play Tech Center and Orange Labs showed us how to incubate and hatch entrepreneurs and innovative products. The Plug & Play Tech Center has built an innovative support environment and resource network for start-ups that bring unique ideas, effective teams, and efficient execution. Finally, Orange Labs shared its innovation philosophy which included a focus on eco-systems, working at the edge, observation and experimentation.

Every presentation and company visit brought us back to the importance of a global network and team in launching new projects and initiatives. The art of networking involves a global reach based on the ability to build and nurture relationships. A majority of companies are collaborating with international partners and colleagues to design, develop, and deliver innovative solutions. This requires effective alignment and communication across cultures. A global exchange for sharing ideas, practices, and issues can be transformed into future solutions and successes.

At the end of the ten day marathon tour, I was impressed by the creativity, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit on display. It is a vivid reminder that the Bay Area continues to be a source of inspiration despite the tough economy. And that’s exactly the kind of energy that we need in launching new projects and accelerating business growth for the coming year.

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