Van Williams, CIO, chief of product engineering and manager of Virtustream development centre in Lithuania, says that the Baltic countries should be more active in attracting global funding. Also, he is convinced that the main asset of any business are innovative professionals, discovered and fostered by universities.
Van Williams. Photo KTU

September 24–25 in Vilnius and Kaunas, the forum Developing Talents for Innovation-Based Economies will take place. This is the first time when the Forum, which is being organised every several months, is taking place in the Baltics.

Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) will host an important part of the event – the panel discussion Making New Knowledge Work for Business and Society. The forum, which is being organised by European Commission, Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, KTU, Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Research and Lithuanian Universities Rectors’ Conference, is one of means to narrow the gap dividing businesses and universities, according to Williams.

You are a manager of development centres in the US, India and Lithuania. Why has such a large corporation as Virtustream chosen a small Baltic country – Lithuania? What were the deciding factors?

Our history with Lithuania actually goes back some years and they were first introduced to us with a very good reputation, which they have lived up to. We have found the development culture to be a great mesh with our U.S. teams. The number of universities and focus on ongoing education and training has created a strong and technically savvy work force. For me, our office in Kaunas has a real “Silicon Valley startup” feel to it. Of course the Invest LT program was also a large advantage for us since it provided a great cooperative environment for our firm, the community and employees.

You are an innovative technology leader with over 25 years of experience in a broad range of technologies in business. What is the importance of university’s reserach and innovation to business?

One of the greatest challenges facing business (and academia as well) is how to stay current and relevant. The pace of change is rising exponentially and there are so many disruptive inventions and firms, that even the large technology companies struggle to keep up. This means we are in constant need of new ideas, fresh perspectives, creative thinking and new research. That can only be achieved through stronger partnerships between the business and university communities.

Business needs young talents, and many of them ‘hide’ in universities. What is the best way to discover the talents and at what time should it be done (before/after graduation)?

We should collectively be discovering talent as early as possible... even before University. For instance, we are investing in a robotics program at a local school in Kaunas and some of the students are already showing an aptitude for software development and logic. We should be investing in them now and encouraging and cultivating that talent.

This past year we brought on 8 interns ranging from freshmen to seniors in KTU and it was a fantastic experience for them and us. What’s been missing though is a systematic way to identify, train and cultivate these students via a partnership between business and university. One common theme I hear from student interns is that they want to work for a variety of companies and have different experiences to be better prepared for the work experience.

Research has shown that the gap between business and science/universities cooperation is becoming wider around the world. What could we do to stop this? What role does government play in this process?

A widening gap is really symptomatic of the difference in goals between the business and academic community – or to be more accurate the “perception” that there is a difference in goals. Business seeks to maximize profits and ROI whereas a University like KTU would say their mission is “To provide a research-based studies of international level, to create and to transfer knowledge and innovative technologies…”

While that sounds very different I would propose that they could be brought much closer in line. This will happen when the business community fully embraces the notion that their employees are the single most critical investment and asset within their firm, and that finding talented, smart, educated, life-long-learners should be the #1 goal of their human capital strategy.

Furthermore, once they have tasted the fruit of a meaningful strategic relationship with a University community, that is building a strong pipeline of talented students ready to fill key roles and doing actual R&D in areas that are meaningful to those firms, they will never go back to their isolation. That will begin to shrink the gap.

Government’s role in this is to create the environment that makes this possible. Make it easy for new firms to come to the Baltics. Make it easy for outsource researchers to propose the Baltics to their CEO’s. Make it easy for the public University systems to partner and invest in areas that drive business value. Reward progress wherever it occurs. Nothing breeds success like success.

What is the link between the number of innovations and the prosperity of a country?

Innovation is the currency of today’s information economy. It really doesn’t matter how large or small a country is, developing specific capabilities in innovation creates value and prosperity. This applies to developed countries as well as developing countries. Compare the worlds use of robotics for industry – you might expect that the US or Germany would lead but in fact South Korea has more robots per 10,000 workers than either of these two super powers.

Innovation can flourish where there is need and vision and a climate created to foster it. In a recent World Bank publication, researches studying 120 companies from 1980 to 2006 showed that each 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration adds 1.3 percent in high income country’s gross domestic product and 1.21 percent for low to middle-income nations. That’s what I mean by creating the “climate of innovation”.

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