Sometimes we feel like we’ve turned up at the wrong party. Everyone else seems to know each other and talk the same language. We don’t mind, but it seemed like time to think about why.

The root of the problem is the idea of the innovation ‘pipeline’. The pipeline idea is that hubs should / could specialise in nurturing a specific stage of business development and could coordinate referrals between hubs. That way entrepreneurs could have a more coherent journey from idea to launch.

Early stage innovation hubs would help ‘ideate’ innovative business ideas. When the ideas are developed to a certain level, the entrepreneurs graduate to other hubs with expertise to help them refine their idea, attract investment and then launch or grow the company. 

Obviously we’re talking about a certain kind of business here. A ‘startup’, started by an English-speaking graduate, that would ideally have regional or national reach and incorporate technology. 

So the aim of having an innovation pipeline rather than a pipe is that attrition is built into the model, it’s a funnel. The aim is to get as many good ideas or as many viable innovations as possible. In order to do that, you need a larger number to start with, so that you can filter and end up with the very best ones. That’s OK in a company, with teams working on different ideas. The aim is to get the best idea. No one really minds about the ideas that get dumped on the way, it’s a means to getting the best ideas to go ahead and implement. The team stays, it’s the ideas that get dumped. (Although if you read in Steve Jobs’ biography how he publicly dumped the team working on LISA to prioritise the Apple Mac, it must have felt brutal at the time.)

But it’s a bit different when we’re talking about people. In the innovation ecosystem you have a crowd of hopeful unemployed graduates who need to create their own jobs. The best ones will reach the end of the pipeline, some will build viable companies, and the prize for the winners at the end of the pipeline is capital funding to implement or scale their idea. 

How well that is working – how many winners there actually are and their impact, is one question. But the other question is about what is happening to everyone else. 

If success means getting to the end of the pipeline, then the purpose of the lower stages of the pipeline is to engage many potential entrepreneurs, so that by force of numbers some talented or lucky ones will make it through all the way. That means that the lower stages of the pipeline are judged by how successful they are in producing entrepreneurs to graduate to the next stage of the pipeline. But does that approach create value for the participants themselves? If you knew that the person was not going to make it to the end, would you give them the same kind of training and support as the prospective pipeline winners, or do they need something different?

RLabs is a member of the innovation ecosystem, so it’s assumed that we’re a pipeline player. There’s a shortage of good ideas and entrepreneurs further up the pipeline, and so hubs are relying on partners lower down the line. They come to us looking for participants we can refer to their programmes. But we don’t really have them. When we don’t / can’t contribute to the pipeline in the way expected, it feels like we’re not a deserving member of the ecosystem. (Perhaps that’s the real problem – not the pipeline itself, but the expectation that there’s one way to do innovation. That to be a member of the ecosystem, you contribute to the pipeline, because that’s what it means to nurture innovation).

At RLabs, you could say we’re at the lowest point of the pipeline, we’re almost below the radar of the ideation phase. 43% of our programme participants only have primary education, 60% have basic phones, 81% have an income below the national poverty line (of 12,300/= per week). These young people are at home, and they feel very let down by the lack of jobs promised to them if they complete school. They can’t afford to wait 1 to 2 years to get a revenue-generating business and nor do they want to start really innovative businesses.

Actually – there is not as much difference as you might think between participants in our programme, and in the innovation incubators. Do those young people really want to start innovative businesses, or are they just taking what’s on offer to them because they need a job? Do you know what they actually want?

Entrepreneurs at all levels of the pipeline could learn a lot from graduates of RLabs’ Grow Leadership programme. Like the way they have discovered which businesses they are passionate about, found creative ways to get startup capital from the opportunities around them, got their first customers, improved their product and reinvested profits to grow the business further. Sometimes all within 6 months from initial training. 

Once they have actually launched, and understand their business, target customers and value proposition, that’s when we see young people ready to innovate their product or services in a meaningful way. But the live business comes first, the innovation comes second. I think that’s fundamentally different from the pipeline approach.

I see it like the hare and the tortoise. As the hare (the innovator) rushes forward it looks like they’re going to get further, but actually the slow and steady tortoise (grassroots business) approach can get young people to the finish line quicker. The finish line of independent income and pride. That’s what they most want – financial independence, wellbeing, respect and the chance to contribute to their families and communities. And so that’s what we want too, and that’s our why.

The thing about innovation in companies is that it’s in order to achieve a higher goal. Why did Steve Jobs dump LISA for Mac? Because Mac had a better chance of meeting the organisation’s higher goals of increasing profits, or greater transformation of personal computing and market dominance, which was probably more important to him. 

Is the aim of the pipeline innovation for its own sake? Or is innovation good for national development? Is it assumed (and is it true) that the more innovative businesses create more or better employment, could be scalable and sustainable, and therefore grow the economy quicker? The ‘why’ matters because that’s how we measure success. If innovative businesses are a means to an end – to create as many jobs or as much revenue as possible, then we can look critically at which interventions (pipeline and non pipeline) create the biggest impact. It could be many small businesses creating a few jobs or a few larger ones or a healthy mix of both. And crucially – it could mean different pathways for those who need and want to create more ‘typical’ businesses and those creating innovative startups.

So friends, we’re happy that you keep inviting us to the party, but so that we can really dance like we’re meant to be here, we want to know – what is your goal in innovation and what would you like us to bring? We make a really fabulous mindset ice cream which we think would be a hit for your guests, and would love to talk more. 

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