COMMENTARY: INNOVATION OLYMPIADS – A Romanian Opportunity?
by Dan Dimancescu with Prof. Mircea Gheorghiu

Societies advance for many reasons. One of these is the ability to innovate – which simply put means creating new and better ways of solving problems. This is, in fact, the basis of genuine wealth creation. The better the solution, the more likely someone will pay for it. This is most visibly manifest in the industrial world – new tools, machines, methods, techniques, and processes – but also in more abstract endeavors such as the arts and culture.

A shared trait among innovators is curiosity and a passion for their chosen work. In that respect Romania has done well for itself whether it be a Coanda and his visionary jet engine in 1910 (more); internationalist architects in the 1920s and 30s; traditional peasant artists; theatre directors or actors; chemists, mathematicians, engineers, physics and life scientists, or computer scientists.

Now, as Romania anticipates its entry into the European Union in 2007, how plausible might it be for the nation to be perceived as a “center of innovation”, a “source of new ideas” and “entrepreneurial energy.” This is far from fanciful given that these qualities are present in the culture. The challenge for present-day Romania is to fuel that innovative energy and turn it into an economic asset.

This can be done through the more obvious methods of subsidies and tax incentives for small business to take root. And that is indeed important. But there must also be ways of recognizing and rewarding individuals – and especially young people at the start of the careers - with a passion for inventing new and economically beneficial ideas. In that respect Romania has an advantage. A communist-era legacy of rigorously contested Olympiads in varied academic fields, including math and science, has bred generations of talented students whose exceptional skills are acknowledged worldwide.

While Olympiads focused primarily on what the individual knows and not necessarily on the creative use of that knowledge, could the competitive spirit of the Olympiads be extended to include “innovation”? This was tried by the author and Tiberius Vadan, a Harvard Business School graduate. Together they inspired a Business Plan contest at the Bucharest Polytechnic University. Student teams responded with well crafted ideas and plans. The model is not new. “In the same way that Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology * helped spawn Silicon Valley and Route 128 in the 70s and 80s,” writes Business Week (Ag 22-29/05), “Indian institutions are encouraging professors and students with business ideas to take the plunge. The schools are providing initial office space, labs, and seed money to ‘incubate’ startup companies.”

Romania’s leading universities – and especially those focused in technical fields – count thousands of talented students. Most are versatile in languages, most if not all are connected to the Internet and its global resources, most are keenly aware of trends in their chosen fields. In short they are actively part of the global community. What if they were challenged through an Olympiad process to share “innovative” ideas that had economic potential – and that the best were rewarded by having those ideas introduced to the commercial world? Given the proper incentives, such high valued-added ideas could develop and mature within Romania. This would have the dual effect of bringing new vitality to the economic and of reinforcing the perception of Romania as an innovative and entrepreneurial culture – which by all evidence it is.

One place to start is among the country's ‘best and brightest’ technical students. The timing is right to grasp the opportunity and self-start an “Innovation Olympiad."

Copyright © D. Dimancescu & M. Gheorghiu, Cambridge, MA.

* SEE: MIT Enterprise Forum (more)

Photo © C. Jitianu
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Exception or the rule: Henri Coanda's Jet Plane (1910)