On International Women’s Day, 8th March 2017, the European Commission will announce the three winners of the 2017 Women Innovators Prize. MTF Founder Michela Magas is one of nine finalists for these prestigious awards. She was interviewed for the European Commission website, where she discussed her inspiration and thoughts about the process of innovation.

Michela Magas is the founder of Stromatolite, a Design Innovation Lab that has built the Music Tech Fest platform - one of the first real Innovation Ecosystems with a community of over 5000 innovators. With this Michela has established a unique innovation ecosystem, policy context and support structure for radical and disruptive innovation by a wide community of creative developers.

Rather than taking a single product to market, her ecosystem has yielded multiple innovative products and services enabled by her ideas of Open Product, Market Adoption, and Innovation IP, creating a fast track to innovation. Stromatolite has participated in four projects funded by Horizon 2020 and the 7th Framework Programme for Research, coordinating two of them.

What made you choose to become an entrepreneur?

There are things I want to create or make possible in the world that simply cannot be achieved in the context of conventional employment. The process of (re)invention starts from the ground up. I like to question how something is organised; what are the guiding principles; do they still reflect the state of technological progress; do they still fulfil their social obligation? Most traditional employment requires a narrow view, one that fits neatly into a slot and follows a linear progression without questioning its foundations. I find that real solutions to challenges often require a rethinking of the supporting structures, which may be perceived as disruptive by conventional standards. Becoming an entrepreneur is the result of this quest to find truly useful solutions from the ground up.

What advice would you give to a woman taking the step of setting up her own business?

Go for it! We need more of the female perspective reflected in our everyday business practices. Countries which insist on 50/50 female/male Steering Boards have registered greater prosperity as a result.

What does the term ‘innovator’ mean to you personally?

An innovator is traditionally someone driven by solutions to challenges, or by curiosity and discovery. It can be someone who imagines the world to be different and sets out to create that difference, or someone who experiments and discovers a different world. Both bring together creativity and science, and in today’s society neither can operate entirely alone. For me personally, an innovator is someone who knows how to join the dots between knowledge from different fields of research and industry, and a variety of cultural viewpoints. It is at the intersection of worlds that we currently find the most promising scenarios, and through knowledge collisions that we discover the best solutions.

Was the research and innovation funding helpful to you?

Radical ideas require validation before they can seek traditional funding. Where ideas are potentially disruptive, they can find resistance from investors because of the high level of risk attached and lack of clear business models upfront. EU research and innovation funding is uniquely placed to support highly risky but potentially game-changing initiatives. Especially where the social impact is notable, the EU funding can afford to take the long-term view and measure the impact beyond immediate income potential. For all these reasons the EU funding was an essential enabler for our initiatives.

Have you faced any prejudice being a woman in your domain?

I was once asked by a male professor in front of a large auditorium of hundreds of students, how did I feel about being a woman designer and entrepreneur - did I feel equal to men? I answered: “With no disrespect, I do not wish to be anything like you. I believe I bring a lot more to the table by offering a woman’s perspective.” An entrepreneur is a state of mind, not a gender.

How can Europe encourage more women innovators?

Our tests show that by opening challenges to creativity and experimentation we get a much better gender balance. We have a clear 50/50 gender split across our children’s workshops, as well as in our creative laboratories for professionals of all backgrounds. We have reached 33% female innovators in our industry testbeds.

Is there a symbol, a proverb, a quote, an idea, that has guided you throughout your professional or private life?

Since my early studies, back in 1990, I had Michael Faraday’s “All this is a dream – still examine it with a few experiments” pinned up on my desk. It has never failed me. The Dennis Gabor quote “The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented” and the later version by Alan Kay “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” has become the motto of our community.

Was it an easy road to arrive where you are now?

I haven’t ‘arrived’ yet - I am still on a journey. It has never been an easy road, there have always been great obstacles and I am still experiencing many of those, but it is a tremendously rewarding journey when you are travelling in the company of a community of brilliant and intelligent people.

What future did you dream about when you were a child?

From a very early age, I was always inspired and fascinated by those people who received the Nobel Peace Prize. It seemed grandiose and far-fetched within the context I was living in at that time, growing up in what was then a restricted, and severely troubled country, about to embark into a war. I was mocked for being a child with big ambitions, but I wanted to be the sort of person who can make a positive impact of that kind.

How should we encourage young kids to become interested in science and innovation?

What we should be encouraging above anything else is the spirit of experimentation, in both the arts and the sciences. There are many ways in which children can meaningfully express themselves. Currently we are focusing almost exclusively on the written word, but modern technology offers children many useful methods of expression that can bridge language barriers and social divides. We need to allow and encourage them to create their own language and expression by discovering their own methods and building their own tools. In order to achieve this, just as with sport, children need some equipment, a place to play and some supportive coaching. With the help of wonderful coaches and role models from our community, parents tell us that their children have become ‘hooked for life’ on science, engineering and creative experimentation.

Are there any life events or persons who have changed your life and contributed to make you the person you are today?

All of the places and people around us make us who we are. I came from a place which is at the crossroads of several European cultures, and from a very early age learnt how to bridge between them. I also witnessed the horrors of civilian conflict and what fear of the unknown can do even to the most educated minds. It often takes just one person to have the courage to create a space where people can “suspend disbelief” and come to a place of common understanding, and this often happens through the arts. For us music has become the social glue - it attracts people from all cultural, intellectual and social backgrounds. It enables them to experiment freely with technology on neutral ground without the pressures of peer reviews or restrictions of jargon. Instead they become fascinated by the other’s knowledge and form strong, long-term bonds which allow them to combine disparate fields of knowledge to solve complex challenges. This not only serves to prevent future conflicts but the resulting innovations also make sound economic sense.

What else is there close to your heart that you would like to share with the readers?

Conflict resolution and economic advancement thorough innovation go hand in hand. Where fear is used to drive profits, this usually creates a short term cash injection, but long-term leaves entire nations poorer. Creating new ways to communicate and exchange knowledge is one of the most effective ways to enrich cultures and advance economies. We have witnessed entirely new methods of communication in our testbeds. The written word is a wonderful “method of translation” for ideas popularised by the technological invention of the printing press, but also presents cross-cultural challenges. New technologies allow us to rely less on the written word and more on gesture and signalling, the way that children do. A new kind of intelligent communication medium will emerge from this world (imagine it as a new kind of “Twitter”), and when it does, you will want to invest in it.