By Marianne Abib-Pech

Do you remember back when you were a young student, probably in biology class, and you learned the concept of the ecosystem? How you learned that all organisms living in a particular area interact with each other to ultimately create a sustainable and mutually beneficial environment?

Stéphane Distinguin — Founder of faberNovel, an innovation company based in Paris — used this analogy to describe how important ecosystems are to entrepreneurship and innovation.

The ecosystem he refers to is initially composed of a local community. You need to create a local impact first, before aspiring to have a global impact. The ecosystem requires a physical space for sharing and exchanging, and freedom to trigger innovation.

Subversion is actually the word he used: “without a bit of subversion, innovation cannot happen. Just remember Radio Liberté!” which opened a new era for radio broadcasting. Finally, the ecosystem needs to “make sense”, to be relevant.

Relevance is defined as a function of critical market size, complemented by ready access to money and supported by a minimum technological level.

“Because your ecosystem is always in front of you, in the making, you should never stop observing, planting and growing. Leadership and human interaction are also critical,” Stéphane adds.

Stéphane doesn’t just talk the talk, but also walks the walk. He has developed business incubators in innovative and strategic cities such as San Francisco (The Canteen) Paris (Le Camping) and soon Moscow. He also takes this one step further, and mentors and even invests in other young entrepreneurs, including his own former staff.

Olivier Desmoulins — founder of Super Marmite and winner of the LeWeb10 a yearly tech start up competition — is one example.

“Stéphane has been highly instrumental in my journey. Working for one of faberNovel’s companies strengthened my capacity to innovate. It structured my innovative process," Olivier said.

"I can best describe it as the following: have a tangible vision of the end product, strive for simplicity, always bear in mind feasibility and above all, think constantly about the end user. You will often find me at The Camping pondering new issues or…finding new solutions.”

In Europe, Paris has in recent years developed a buoyant, vibrant, energetic entrepreneurial ecosystem. Incubators like The Camping, Agoranov, and ones focused on specific industries are flourishing. Paris benefits from a mature business angels scene, complemented by venture capital and private equity houses, and advertised by entrepreneurial success stories. From hearsay, London does too, and Cologne probably as well.

In its own way, Europe is playing catch-up with the Silicon Valley, or even New York’s entrepreneurial scene.

But what about Asia?

Asia remains the Eldorado for economic growth. Growth projections are still strong for 2012. Though no longer in the double digits, projections are still a healthy 5 to 8% depending which part of Asia you are looking at. China still leads the pack at 8%. Where are Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai or even the Philippines in their journeys towards building entrepreneurial ecosystems to rival Europe?

The scene is rather diverse!

Singapore is leading the movement, with a strong push from the government.
It offers free office space, multiple internationalcollaboration with Western universities and an easier visa process for entrepreneurs. It benefits from a rich network of institutional and private business angels, such as Singtel or Business Angel Network of South East Asia.

China is not far behind, with a strong push for internet start-ups and a real encouragement for mixing corporate and entrepreneurial world qualities.

However, Hong Kong is still a relatively blank canvass. You will find approximately two major incubator spaces in Hong Kong — and both are still deeply linked to universities and very technology based. You will find a limited numbers of established business angel networks, but still operating with a limited number of active members.

Why is that?

It may be because Hong-Kong has traditionally benefited from a booming real estate and banking sector, it has impaired the need for a more agile and flexible economy.

It may be because, culturally, becoming an entrepreneur remains an unusual and off the beaten track choice for Hong Kong students when compared to, say, joining an investment bank or a retail company.

Or perhaps — to return to our biology analogy — simply because both necessity and time are critical elements for an ecosystem to change and evolve.

When the necessity to rely on an entrepreneurial base becomes a pressing issue; when, say, it will be needed to reinforce or sustain growth, then we will see a new ecosystem emerge.

Let’s be proactive then and anticipate this change.

Let’s encourage Hong Kong to accelerate the pace of change and knock the socks of established businesses.

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