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Panel: Innovation as a Driver of Development in the Americas

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Ángel Cabrera makes a point. (Image: Mark Finkenstaedt)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


  • Bruce Andrews, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce
  • Ángel Cabrera, President, George Mason University
  • Eduardo Caride, Chief Executive Officer, Telefónica Hispanoamérica
  • Omar Ishrak, Chief Executive Officer, Medtronic
  • Megan Murphy, Washington Bureau Chief, Financial Times (moderator)

The 45th Washington Conference on the Americas’ panel on innovation in the Americas brought executives and experts from the fields of government, academia, telecom, and healthcare.

Bruce Andrews, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce, opened the panel by speaking on the department’s priority to increase competitiveness so that the Western Hemisphere can be competitive in the global marketplace. He highlighted the Americas Competitiveness Forums and Exchanges from the Department of Commerce, as well as an exchange program between communities in Guatemala and South Carolina that led to a clean-river project, and also linked Guatemala’s rubber resources to Michelin’s supply headquarters in SC.

Andrews said that rule of law was “a critical piece” to having effective competition—in particular, rules that are transparent and predictable. “If you don’t have that, frankly, it leads to corruption,” he said. “What holds back so many countries in their ability to be successful is systems that promote or allow corruption without commitment from high levels to address them.” By contrast, he said, governments should move away from protectionist policies and protecting “incumbent actors,” and instead move toward open laws and economies that allow for “disruptors” to find better and smarter ways to do business. Andrews underscored the importance of protecting intellectual property in innovation: “To know that you can create something and be remunerated and no one can take that away from you is hugely important for innovation and economies to thrive.”

Eduardo Caride, CEO of Telefonica Hispanoamerica, described connectivity throughout Latin America as one of the main issues the telecom company has to tackle going forward. “We need our people to be prepared and ready to work in this new world,” he said. But he noted that strategies that might have worked in the United States might not be immediately applicable elsewhere. “We [in Latin America] are starting from a different point than developed countries, so we shouldn’t be doing the same things,” adding that building out the broadband spectrum in particular would be much more expensive to do than it has been in other areas.

Omar Ishrak, CEO of Medtronic, said that innovation in healthcare at his company has been driven by “a dependence and focus on” the company’s mission, which is to use technology and engineering to change outcomes. He noted Medtronic’s focus on what he called the “digital ecosystem” in using big data and hardware to improve healthcare directly in people’s own homes. He also mentioned how it’s not just enough to create healthcare solutions, but to also work with governments to develop and adapt infrastructures required to roll the solutions out.

Angel Cabrera, the president of George Mason University spoke about the important role universities and higher education play in innovation. “World-class institutions are the biggest attractors of world-class talent,” he said, and cited a study saying one out of every two founders of startups grew up outside the United States. By and large, these entrepreneurs each came to be a part of a university community, which then fosters growth and drive. He highlighted the importance of university study abroad programs as keys to integration. “Honestly, student exchange is perhaps one of the most powerful tools that we have found to develop people with the skills to interact with people from different cultures and skills,” he said. Reiterating a remark from Luis Moreno earlier in the day, “The next Mark Zuckerberg may speak Spanish or Portuguese.”

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