Make Your Own Silicon Valley

SEATTLE – California may be the world’s largest and best-known technology hub, but it is not alone in fostering innovative startups. In fact, such firms are emerging – almost unnoticed – everywhere, from Asian megalopolises like Singapore and Shanghai to small European cities like Espoo in Finland and Dwingeloo in the Netherlands. Many international startups – including Sweden’s Spotify, Estonia’s Skype, Israel’s Waze – and, most recently, China’s Alibaba – have gained billion-dollar valuations.

Clearly, the key features of Silicon Valley that foster innovation and entrepreneurship – a dense concentration of human talent, a competitive spirit, easy access to capital, and a supportive regulatory environment – can be replicated in and adapted to a wide variety of contexts. Indeed, these pillars of creativity and progress have been erected even in countries whose economies, politics, and cultures diverge sharply from those of the United States.

Of course, not every country approaches innovation in the same way. Finland, for example, owes its dynamic computer-games cluster largely to a student-driven movement in higher education. Though Rovio Entertainment’s release in 2009 of the popular video game Angry Birds catalyzed an innovation boom in Espoo, it is Aalto University – Finland’s equivalent of Stanford in California – that continues to fuel innovation in the area, by nurturing programmers, designers, and others with the necessary talents. Aalto students also have launched Europe’s most dynamic startup conference, which will bring together more than 10,000 entrepreneurs and financiers this November.

Moreover, the university’s Startup Sauna seed-accelerator program helps promising early-stage startups take their first steps toward success. Located on campus, the program’s facilities resemble colorful Google offices, but with a Finnish twist: video conference rooms have been built into sauna-like structures. Since its establishment in 2010, 126 companies have graduated from Startup Sauna, having raised more than $37 million in funding.