Global Innovation Through Science and Technology Conference on "Economic Development Through Science and Technology Innovation"

Jose W. Fernandez
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs
Rabat, Morocco
June 17, 2011

I am delighted to be visiting Morocco again. It gives me special pleasure to speak at the GIST Forum with so much intellectual talent and so many key players from around the world involved in cultivating innovation and bringing new ideas to market. This is a true collaboration with the best and brightest from government, the private sector, foundations, NGOs, and academic institutions all convening to promote innovation in science and technology for commercial development and economic growth.

And this is an ideal time to be engaged in this initiative. In emerging markets around the world there is a growing population of young people, brimming with energy and the desire to use their god-given talents in a productive way -- to better their own prospects as well as improve their own country. All they need is a chance.

Unfortunately, youth in many developing countries are finding it difficult to find opportunities. Employment prospects in many countries are not keeping pace with the burgeoning population of young citizens. If you needed any reminders, the recent demonstrations throughout the Middle East and North Africa are evidence of young people’s desire for greater opportunity.

According to the international labor organization (ilo), the global unemployment rate for 15-24 year olds increased from below 12 percent in 2007 to over 13 percent in 2009, the highest level on record. Over 80 million of the world’s 620 million economically active youth are unemployed. North Africa and the Middle East had the highest rates in the world of young people without a job-- with almost one-quarter of their youth unemployed. And even though the ilo expects youth unemployment to decline globally, the rate in North Africa and the Middle East will continue increasing beyond this year.

I’m talking about this because it puts our efforts on entrepreneurship in perspective. Entrepreneurship represents one of the most promising ways to expand economic opportunity and create jobs for youth. Many of these young peopl are are talented and would be willing to take risks if shown the way and offered the chance to succeed. But there are gaps in skills training -- especially in math and science and also in the dearth of entrepreneurship curricula at local universities. Improving the ecosystem for entrepreneurship and building capacity in education, science and technology, is a prime way to increase job prospects, boost economic growth, and improve social and political stability.

Entrepreneurs are the engines of economic growth and job creation and the champions of change. They are individuals who take an innovation and convert it into a product or service, or develop a new process or production method themselves. Education, science and technology lay the foundations for the innovation that makes entrepreneurship possible. Entrepreneurship opens doors for women and youth and provides new economic opportunities for investors and established businesses.

In recognition of its importance, the Obama administration made a commitment to tap American expertise to develop opportunities and spur interest in entrepreneurship around the world. Promoting entrepreneurship exemplifies President Obama’s approach for broader and deeper engagement with people around the world – an approach based on investment and training that supports local innovation and leadership. To shepherd this effort, secretary of state Hilary Clinton launched the global entrepreneurship program in April 2010 during the U.S. presidential summit on entrepreneurship.

And so we have started a state department initiative related to entrepreneurship that is specifically intended to work with and for the Maghreb. We call it the U.S. - North Africa partnership for economic opportunity, or NAPEO. We launched napeo along with our partner the aspen institute in December 2010 in Algiers at the U.S. – Maghreb entrepreneurship conference, the first regional follow-on conference to the presidential summit on entrepreneurship. The department, acting as a public sector “venture capitalist” has invested $1.2 million alongside the aspen institute to stand-up this innovative regional partnership.

NAPEO covers Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, with a focus on youth training, job creation and entrepreneurship. Programs include: U.S. - Maghreb networking and investor platforms; innovation and technology incubation; access to finance (e.g. Diaspora angel networks and Diaspora direct investment); skills training for youth and entrepreneurs; entrepreneurship training for regional artists; and better linkages with U.S. business schools, think thanks and researchers.

I would also take a moment to thank the civilian research and development foundation (CRDF), the organizer of this event, which is a critical partner for napeo on the innovation and technology pillar, including its work on the Maghreb digital library.

Napeo is planning an entrepreneurship mission to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in October 2011. It will be composed of U.S. -- Maghreb Diaspora investors, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs who will meet with start-ups and potential business angels. Maghreb Diaspora angels in the united states will be connected to angel networks in all three countries.

This entrepreneurship mission will also sponsor a business plan competition and host mentoring sessions for start-ups. This first set of competitions will lead to a long-term program -- the “Maghreb start-up initiative” – that will have annual competitions in Tunisia and Morocco linked to Diaspora entrepreneur mentors in silicon valley based on an existing successful model in Algeria -- the Algeria start-up initiative.

The U.S. – Maghreb entrepreneurship conference where we first kicked off napeo will be an annual regional follow-up to President Obama’s 2010 summit on entrepreneurship. It will serve as an important event for convening napeo network, including the napeo local advisory boards and partners from across the united states and the Maghreb. We look forward to holding the next conference here in Morocco in January 2012.