Robert Pearlstein: "Catalonia has all the elements of a successful innovation economy"

Robert Pearlstein:

The Stanford Research Institute (SRI) stands behind high-value and disruptive innovations such as the mouse, Apple’s assistant Siri, cancer treatments or medical ultrasounds. Located in Silicon Valley, it is one of the United States’ largest independent research institutions.

In a recent visit to Barcelona, Robert Pearlstein, vice president of Corporate Business and International Development at SRI, declared that Catalonia has all the elements of a successful innovation economy, like talent, people and government-led initiatives.

What are the ingredients of an innovative ecosystem?

Number one is the government: having a strong government policy that encourages innovation. It means having strong universities and technical universities. It means having companies that are willing to invest in innovation. Bigger is better, but even midsize is good, too. And last, it means having a venture community: having startups and new companies. And I believe that Catalonia has a lot of that.

When you think about it, smart people, with their technology whatever it is, they could live anywhere in the world. Many people live in California, and why did they move there? Because the weather is really good! It's a great place. You could drive a couple of hours and you are skiing, and you drive a couple of hours more and you are at the beach. And in Catalonia it's exactly the same!

You have a lot of investment coming in here in Catalonia, but I think having a process or a strategy is important. All the elements of a successful innovation economy are here in Catalonia. Is it the same size and extent as Silicon Valley? No, but Silicon Valley has been around for many decades. It's not going to be the same.

Is it possible to accelerate this process to make it exponential? How?

Absolutely. But I think it has to be driven. In Silicon Valley, it was driven by the government in many ways. Innovation in the US, which is a little different from here in Catalonia, started with defense spending, and that was the catalyst. That is not a requirement anymore, but I do think that it takes initiatives by the government to help sponsoring faster innovation.

Because of that I think it is so important what Catalonia Trade & Investment is doing here. You should be in many ways acting as a catalyst, that is, having people like me out here from Silicon Valley.

In which areas does Catalonia have the potential to become a reference in innovation?

In many different areas. There is a number of strong software companies and engineering companies. I think what Catalonia needs to do is look at its core assets today, sectors where it is strong and try to figure out how to develop those further.

Can Catalonia extract any lessons from the innovative ecosystem of Silicon Valley? Or is the European way different?

It is not different. At the end of the day Silicon Valley is about talent and people. And I think the real question is how does Catalonia continue to foster an environment where smart people want to come here. You need people that want to get into new ventures; how do you support that?

In the United States, and particularly in Silicon Valley, there is a culture of "it's OK to fail". Before I came to SRI I worked in five startup companies. The majority of them failed. And I was always able to find another job! If anything, the companies that I went to next liked the fact that I failed. Because I learned more from the failure than I would if I had succeeded. And I was hungrier because I kept wanting to succeed.

Is there a culture of risk-taking in Catalonia? Because 9 out of 10 startups are going to fail. You have to have a culture here that thinks it is OK to fail. In the US, most Stanford MBAs that were graduating in the past they all wanted to go work for a big bank. Now that's not the case. The majority want to either start their own company or work for a startup. You used to be more secure when you went to work for a big company. Nowadays, I feel, if you work for a big company, you are less secure. It is a different world out there.

It is clear that Silicon Valley has advantages over any other ecosystem. However, does Catalonia have any advantage over Silicon Valley?

I do not know if Catalonia has an advantage over Silicon Valley, but what I can say is that Catalonia should not discount itself. There are many assets here in terms of people, ecosystem, and weather. Having this beautiful environment here is really an attraction for smart people and for those that want to come, create new companies and do technology. Catalonia needs to leverage that more and more.

We do a lot of work in Chile, as an example. Chile is a much smaller country, it has about 17 million people, and additionally, it is very isolated. The Government has been doing a fantastic job of driving innovation through lots of different programs; by trying to attract foreign entrepreneurs to come to Chile. Catalonia is in the heart of Europe, between Africa and Western Europe. There is a lot of advantages there.

How to innovate in Catalonia

There are many assets in Catalonia in terms of people, ecosystem and weather. It is an attraction for smart people that want to come, create new companies and do technology