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Innovation Perspectives:

A Conversation with Nikhil Sinha of GSVlabs 

22nd November 2019

Written by James DeVaney, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and Founding Executive Director, Center for Academic Innovation

Innovative thinking and talent is universal but the resources and enabling ecosystems that support innovation and entrepreneurship are far from evenly distributed. Or is the democratization of innovation and equitable access to the global innovation economy closer than we think? 

The Center for Academic Innovation is designing the future of learning through research, innovation, experimentation, and iteration. With colleagues across a growing network we are exploring what it takes to nurture new ideas and ventures that improve the way we teach and learn. But what are the key ingredients for sustainable innovation? What resources, methodologies, language, and tools do we need for innovation to thrive?l innovation economy closer than w think? 

Nikhil Sinha has looked at the global innovation economy from multiple views. He is the Chief Executive Officer at GSVlabs and a Partner in Global Silicon Valley, a Silicon Valley based investment firm. Prior to joining GSV, Nikhil was the Chief Content Officer at Coursera. He was also the founding Vice Chancellor of the Shiv Nadar University and served as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Texas.

Nikhil and I connected to discuss the changing contours of the global innovation economy, the role of research universities in the global innovation ecosystem, and the exciting potential of XR, edtech, and individualized learning.

Q: GSVlabs talks a lot about enabling the global innovation economy. What is it and how is it changing? 

For decades, Silicon Valley has been synonymous with entrepreneurship and technology and startup innovation. Fueled by the large venture capital sector, access to human capital from top universities and large enterprises who are willing to fund innovative projects and services, Silicon Valley has spawned some of the world’s most transformative technology companies. But as technologies and information have spread to further corners of the United States and the world, we’ve seen capital follow in its footsteps. With borderless capital available, more entrepreneurs are able to launch their ventures regardless of location. There were about 600,000 new technology startups in the U.S. last year but more than 6 million in the rest of the world. For the first time, more VC investments went to startups outside the U.S. (about 55 percent) than in the U.S. Non U.S. startups, like Spotify, are establishing themselves as global service providers and U.S. startups, like Coursera, are international companies from the day they launch. We are also seeing innovation-led companies rising to the top of the corporate pyramid. In 1965, the top five most valuable companies in the world were IBM, AT&T, GM, Standard Oil, and Kodak. Today, they are Apple, Amazon, IBM, Alphabet, and Facebook. Innovation is now global, interconnected and the engine of economic growth and capital appreciation.

Q: Often when we talk about innovation in higher education we focus on how differently faculty, university administrators, edtech innovators, and venture capitalists approach the idea of innovation. Well, you’ve been a university professor, a senior university administrator, an edtech executive, and a venture capitalist. Have your views of innovation shifted with these vantage points or do we overemphasize differences and look past our shared interests? 

This is a great question. I think there are definitely different vantage points and that is reflected in the different ways in which these stakeholders approach innovation. But there is also a shared purpose ⁠— improving the ways in which education is provided and received. Typically, innovation can take two broad forms: doing new things or doing existing things better ⁠— what Clayton Christansen calls disruptive innovation or sustainable innovation.  With the usual caveats about the perils of generalization, different stakeholders often view the need for innovation differently. Faculty are often focused on disruptive innovation in their research, but sustainable innovation in their teaching. University administrators spend most of their time on sustainable organizational improvements, but also creating conditions in which their faculty can develop new, transformative ideas. Edtech innovators are looking for new breakthrough technologies and increasingly investors are backing them but the reality is that most edtech startups are engaged in building better mousetraps, not new mousetraps. What I’ve learned from my experience in these different roles is that while the pursuit of innovation is context-dependent, all these stakeholders share the common purpose of improving the ways in which we learn, teach, research, and administer.

Q: With all you’ve learned from these experiences and your current thinking at GSVlabs, what role do you hope research universities will play in the global innovation ecosystem?

I strongly believe that research universities will play an increasingly important role in the global innovation ecosystem. Research institutions attract incredibly smart and ambitious people with a drive to solve the world’s biggest problems, backed by research and data. They are the most important breeding ground for talent and creativity, which are key ingredients for innovation. Their multidisciplinary make-up is an important driver since radical innovation occurs when previously unconnected bodies of knowledge are brought together to solve a problem. Successful early-stage startups are founded by a well-rounded team of individuals from diverse backgrounds. Universities are a multidisciplinary hub that provide a means for diverse groups to interact with each other. University students have a high tolerance for risk. Startups are ambiguous and uncertain experiences and college-based entrepreneurs are more open to experimentation. Some of the biggest tech disruptions were founded on university campuses ⁠— Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, Dropbox by Arash Ferdowski and Drew Houston at  MIT, Dell by Michael Dell in his dorm room at UT Austin, and Coursera by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng while faculty members at Stanford University.

Q: As you seek to enable and strengthen a global nodal network for innovation, how do you identify the next economic hotspot?

At GSVlabs, we believe that “Silicon Valley” is more of a mindset than a geographic location. Innovative thinking and talent is universal, but what has held up innovation in many parts of the world has been a lack of resources and a lack of an enabling ecosystem necessary for innovation to thrive. This is changing. We are seeing the emergence of a global Silicon Valley ⁠— entrepreneurial mindsets now supported by capital, knowledge, and shared innovation methodologies. Since becoming CEO of GSVlabs in May of last year, I’ve visited innovation hubs in several parts of the world and it’s surprising how the culture, methodologies, and language of innovation is converging in the major innovation centers. 

However, in most parts of the world, entrepreneurs still lack a great many of the resources and a supportive ecosystem that we take for granted in Silicon Valley, Shenzhen, London, or Paris. At GSVlabs, we’re trying to bridge that gap through our “Passport” platform. Passport has made it possible for us to look past the select hotspots of innovation and reach startups and entrepreneurs in more than 40 countries and in cities with few innovation resources. Until the launch of Passport, we had been helping to accelerate startups at our innovation centers in Silicon Valley and Boston. With Passport, we now have the opportunity to expand our reach and further enable this global innovation economy.

Q: Through your work at Coursera, you partnered with institutions like the University of Michigan to provide a global learning community with increasingly more social, mobile, and local learning opportunities. What’s transferable to your efforts today with respect to the global startup community? 

What we were able to do at Coursera was take the courses and academic programs of the best higher education institutions in the world and give people anywhere, anytime, any device access to those educational resources at affordable prices. The more than 40 million registered learners on Coursera can now not only aspire to the world’s best learning experiences at the University of Michigan and other institutions, but actually partake in them. At Coursera, we solved the age-old tensions in higher education between high quality education, universal access to education, and affordable prices for education. We liked to say, at Coursera, that we are engaged in the process of democratizing access to high quality higher education.

At GSVlabs, we are creating the same paradigm for innovation ⁠— taking the high quality resources, tools, and methodologies available to entrepreneurs and innovators in Silicon Valley and other global innovation hot spots and making them available to entrepreneurs and innovators anywhere in the world at affordable prices.  Through Passport, entrepreneurs in Addis Ababa and Nairobi, Santiago and Lima, Kuala Lumpur and Manila now have access to the same quality of mentorship, investors, service providers, learning materials, and community that our members in Silicon Valley and Boston already have. We like to say, at GSVlabs, that we are engaged in the process of democratizing innovation and empowering entrepreneurs around the world.  

Q: What are some things about innovation and innovation programs that everyone thinks they know, but they actually get wrong?

First, there are very many things that we now know about supporting entrepreneurial innovation that we do get right. Encouraging entrepreneurs to develop new ideas and supporting them with learning resources, tools, mentoring, and capital are some of them. All of these resources, however, need to exist in an environment that derisks experimentation, incentivizes breakthrough thinking, and doesn’t punish failure. This is often overlooked in many organizational contexts, including educational institutions.  

With respect to entrepreneurship, there are two areas that are often neglected and a focus on these resources can go a long way in supporting entrepreneurs:

  • Connecting entrepreneurs to a dynamic community of other founders. Being an entrepreneur is a lonely job and giving entrepreneurs an ecosystem to connect with each other, ask questions, brainstorm, share insights, and simply make connections is crucial. There has been a big push in the past decade to connect founders on a local or regional level, which is a great place to start. Online communities, however, allow connections between founders based upon stage, technology area, market vertical, and many other attributes. 

  • Connecting entrepreneurs to customer and market context. Early and easy access to customers, subject matter experts, and sources of capital have provided Silicon Valley startups an edge for decades.There is a huge opportunity to connect prospective entrepreneurs across the globe to these stakeholders on Day 1, rather than Day 100 (or Day 1,000 in some ecosystems). 

Q: GSVlabs always seems to have it’s finger on the pulse of breakthrough innovations and the technologies and industries of tomorrow. Are there any particular trends or technologies that you are most excited about? 

It is always going to be hard to pick any one trend, because the pace of innovation is so fast today. I’m excited by the fact that the last generation of breakthrough technologies (mobile, Internet of Things, commercial Artificial Intelligence) are reaching impressive levels of adoption and sophistication, while the next generation of breakthrough technology (Autonomy/Robotics, Blockchain, Precision Medicine) are starting to show some powerful commercial use cases.  The rapid growth of extended reality applications is also an exciting development. I was delighted that the University of Michigan recently announced a major new XR initiative. This is a very important initiative that goes beyond a simple focus on the technological challenges involved in the deployment of XR applications. I believe that, in the human-machine interactions enabled by XR, we will see the distillation of many of the most important economic, social, political, and ethical issues involved in the introduction of transformative technologies. A world-class, multi-disciplinary research university like Michigan is ideally positioned to lead an effort to engage in the investigation of these issues.

Personally, I’m particularly interested in educational technology and its impact on individual learning. Large-scale online learning platforms now provide us the opportunity to combine large amounts of data and apply machine learning, experimentation, and research to provide new insights into the ways individuals learn. These data-rich environments will allow us to develop truly personalized learning experiences and transform traditional structures that rely on a “one-size-fits all” approach to instruction in which all learners are expected to go through the same material. We’ll be able to deliver personalized experiences to learners based on their stated or inferred learning goals and the use of adaptive and perceptual learning algorithms. In the future, we’ll deploy tools that help learners determine what material within a course is most relevant to them and create customized learning paths. Modular content architectures will soon make possible the reuse of content modules between courses, and enable the creation of tailored courses consisting of modules focused on particular topics that are highly relevant to an individual. In addition, the modularization of content will allow us to create non-linear course structures that reflect the natural, non-sequential dependencies between modules and individual capabilities. By encoding these dependencies explicitly, we’ll be able to answer questions such as, what modules from which courses and in what sequence must a person learn in order to develop a particular skill, given his/her current preparation and learning abilities? This is the real, but yet to be fulfilled promise of educational technologies.

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