How does a country inspire an innovation culture among its younger generations?

In Turkey, inspiring the young starts with a free-to- attend innovation conference with speakers from around the world, and for a select group of 800 gifted students, travel and accommodation expenses included.

The fact that innovation drives economic growth is indisputable, but how do countries engender a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship among young people?

Countries tend to rely on a cocktail of (often disparate) measures – tech and R&D grants, tech hubs, tax breaks for venture capitalists, mentoring schemes, support groups, training programs, conferences, networking events, awards and so on. But these schemes and events tend to focus on existing entrepreneurs and businesses, rather than the potential innovators of the future.

Turkey, which has a vast young population – half of the population is under 31, according to Invest in Turkey  – has taken this one step further; running annual innovation conferences aimed squarely at its young / student population, with an impressive, if eclectic, roster of speakers from around the world.

It’s a model from which other countries, including those at the top of Global Innovation League, conferences could learn. There are countless innovation conferences all over the world. These generally fall into two categories:

  • Commercial ventures e.g. Slush (Finland), SXSW (US), TechCruch Disrupt (US, UK), Future Festival (Canada, US, UK). Tickets cost US $500 to $3000. Start-ups and students may qualify for reductions, but few students will consider $300 for TechCruch Disrupt a bargain.
  • Promotional events, run by governmental bodies, to showcase local business innovation and facilitate networking for start-ups e.g. Innovate 2016 (UK). Tickets cost US $250 – $300.

Istanbul’s Turkey Innovation Week conference, now in its fifth year, is different. Not only is entry free for the 60,000 people who attend the three day conference in Istanbul, held early December, and sister events in Ankara and Adana. But the organizers also run a special program for 2,000 students hand-picked from 140 different universities across Turkey – 800 of these, from farther afield, receive travel and accommodation expenses.


The result is a conference that attracts a much younger demographic than the norm. Among the crowds of students, groups of school children can even be spotted.


The Istanbul conference is part of a wider national program called InovaTIM. Students are invited to apply online to become part of the scheme. From these applications 2,000 of the most talented are selected, with assistance from the students’ universities, and with regard to various criteria, including the attendee’s course, grades and engagement in innovative activities and societies.

The chosen students get access to training, workshops, project management, tech visits (including overseas), mentoring and internships throughout the year. They are also expected to take an active role at the conferences organizing and participating in seminars, along with other voluntary roles.

When you do the sums you begin to get an idea of the importance that the organizers and investors, the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM), The Turkish Ministry of Economy; and the sponsors place in Turkey’s future innovators. With no entrance fee, the organizers/investors are shouldering the cost of staging the event, including the expenses of 50+ speakers from 10 countries – including global experts in biomechatronics and robotics; as well as the students’ expenses.

Turkey is on a mission to drive up innovation and TIM, which is one of the largest NGOs in Turkey with 70,000 members, is tasked with leading that charge.

This is summed up by Süleyman Kocasert, deputy chairman of the Turkish Exporters&; Assembly (TIM):

Turkey Innovation Week is our gift to future innovators of Turkey. TIM represents all exporters in Turkey. Our main purpose is to increase Turkey’s exports. We believe that Turkey cannot increase exports only using traditional or conservative methods.

Turkey must use high technology and Turkey must be future oriented. R&D, innovation, design & fashion and branding are the future of Turkey’s exports. Turkey can increase value added export by using innovation only. That’s why we’ve been organizing Turkey Innovation Week for 5 years. We have invested a lot and Turkey İnnovation Week has become one of the biggest event in Turkey with 60,000 visitors, with over a million followers and 50 speakers from 10 different countries.

Our biggest potential is young and well educated population of Turkey. We realized this potential and we are investing their and our future by creating awareness for innovation. It is a kind of event where many young people, students, start-ups, investors, very famous speakers, journalists, businessmen, scientist and economists come together.

The importance of innovation culture

Turkey currently stands at number 42 in the Global Innovation Index (GII) with a score of 39. A country’s GII is calculated annually (by Johnson Cornell University, INSEAD and WIPO) on a basket of measures, including institutions, human capital and research, infrastructure, market sophistication, business sophistication, knowledge and technology outputs and creative outputs.

Back in 2013 Turkey stood at 68th in the Innovation Index with a score of 36. That’s an improvement of 29 places in three years, and three points.

But there is still a mountain to climb. To put Turkey’s innovation score (39) in perspective, it is more than 20 points behind the top five countries: Switzerland with 66.3; Sweden 63.6; UK 61.9; USA 61.4; and Finland 59.9. Bottom of the list of ranked countries is Yemen at 128th place with a score of 14.6.

In recent years, Turkey has been on a drive to improve the culture of innovation among young people – of which Innovation Week is just part.

Veysi Isler, professor of Computer Engineering at Middle East Technical University (METU) explains:

In the last couple of years, there have been a lot of events to inspire the next generation of innovators/entrepreneurs in Turkey. Especially, techno-parks and associated universities are driving this trend in the last decade in Turkey. There is also an index of the most innovative and entrepreneurial universities in Turkey – all of these have many activities to inspire their students for innovation and entrepreneurship.

There are also some international organizations such as Endeavor  which contributes to the atmosphere mentioned. On the other hand, government organizations provide incentives and support, in this direction, which some of the most generous in the world. Involving 2000 students from all over the country in Turkey Innovation Week helps inspire innovation culture among young people who can also connect, network and socialize with each other and other attendees. I don’t know of any events in other countries that gathers so many young people to do this.

International reaction

While many of the speakers at the event had spoken at many innovation conferences, none knew another conference that was so focused on the country’s student population or one where the organizers were prepared to subsidize student attendees.


Dezso Molnar is an innovator of flying cars – i.e. home-built, street-legal vehicles, that can fly – and the organizer of the world’s first flying car race, which he hopes will take place in Q4 2017 in California. He believes the competition involved in racing is a trigger to spur more participation and innovation in the development of flying cars, particularly electric and solar powered vehicles:

The Turkish government bringing the students to the event is more generous than anything I am currently aware of in the US or elsewhere, and I applaud the emphasis that is usually only reserved for sports teams and not participants in the arts or sciences.

As a speaker and attendant, I had the opportunity to view all of the work on display in the time before my presentation, and feel many of the items to include the carbon-constructed pedal boat, the efficient electric race cars, Onuk’s new sports vehicles, and the drone construction group displayed a perfectly relevant set of skills that potentially allow students to could draw from my presentation to bring their efforts off the ground!

My objective was to demystify the challenges of building and operating flying cars, and transfer some of that responsibility and opportunity to the students who may want and could build one, and the companies and sponsors that supported the event, and thus could support groups and teams in Turkey to build and compete.

Dezso Molnar draws a parallel with FIRST Robotics, which is led by inventor (of the Segway) and philanthropist Dean Kamen:

FIRST Robotics is an organization that has a large number or participants around the world and does much with its network to make robotics training and competition available to many high-school age children and younger.

Pinar Demirdag is a Paris-based Turkish graphic fashion designer, and co-founder of Pinar&Viola, a studio that helped to create a Hologram fashion show at Amsterdam Fashion Week and a print collection for IKEA:

I’m proud of Turkey to pull off such a high quality seminar, welcoming international speakers to a country where many westerners can be reluctant to go these days. It’s important for kids get to see an international point of view, and to experience a showcase of the latest car models and weird innovations on the exhibition floor, which will all, hopefully, sprinkle hope and dreams in these young minds.

Room for improvement

There’s always room for improvement. The provision of free WIFI is conference and an event guide in English is a notable omission. Though the live translation of the sessions was excellent.

Several speakers suggested the conference could be improved, by being more interactive, with more workshops where students could engage with speakers and more networking events where young innovators/entrepreneurs could meet with potential investors.

Oren Simanian, founder of StarTau, the Tel-Aviv University Entrepreneurship Centre:

I think mega events are important to create the first engagement step. I consider this event to be successful for this reason. I also think that the international aspect, including having speakers from various countries is crucial, and the conference did this well, also. But I think investors and B2B meetings were missing.


Disclosure: The columnist, Andy Favell, was a guest of the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM), at Turkey Innovation Week, in Istanbul, December, 2016.

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