In the myriad of articles about innovation and entrepreneurship, the term “unicorn” has entered our lexicon to describe an ideal to aspire to in business. A unicorn is commonly described as a start-up business that experiences meteoric growth resulting in a stock market valuation or estimated valuation of more than $1 billion. The term was first popularized by the venture capitalist Aileen Lee in her 2013 article “Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups” where she looked at software startups founded in the 2000s and estimated that only .07% of them ever reach $1 billion valuation. She noted that those that do reach the $1 billion mark are so rare that finding one is as difficult as finding a unicorn – a mythical beast.
Of course in the business sense, the unicorn does exist and are well known to the general public as Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Airbnb, Space-X, and Groupon to name just a few. Fortune Magazine even publishes a list of business unicorns that numbered 174 in 2016, but that is a very small number in relation to the almost 29 million businesses across the U.S. So are unicorns enough to build a strong economy or do we need a more diverse innovation environment?
Recently authors Jennifer Brandel and Mara Zepeda coined a new term, “zebra”, to describe a company very different than a unicorn that is just as important, if not more, to a strong local economy. The term zebra has come to define characteristics that are important to economic development, especially at the community level:
Zebra companies focus on creating sustainable and profitable businesses that treat their employees and customers well and make the world a better place. Also, zebras are tied closely to the community and both stimulate growth and benefit from growth in the community. Yet zebras struggle for survival because they exist in a world where finding the next unicorn is the goal of many investors.
The good news is that our local “innovation ecosystem” is well suited to nurture and support zebra companies as they startup and grow in our communities. ‘Innovation Ecosystem’ is the term used to describe the large and diverse array of participants and resources that contribute to and are necessary for ongoing innovation in a modern economy. The local Georgia Innovation Ecosystem is made up of resources available from industry, universities and colleges, government, non-government organizations, and the investment community. Together this community of resources provides a zebra company, as well as the potential unicorns, a wide range of services to create new products to propel the company to the next level.
How does the Georgia Centers of Innovation fit into this Ecosystem? As a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the Centers are a resource designed to help Georgia companies of all shapes and sizes overcome innovation challenges. The Centers provide value-added services to assist companies in Georgia’s key industries to develop new products, services, and markets through partnerships with state, federal and private institutions that comprise Georgia’s ‘Innovation Ecosystem.’
So which innovation animal are you? Unicorn or zebra, Georgia is a great place to grow your herd.