In my last post I wrote about corporate incubation/acceleration models, presenting four distinct ones, discussed how to start one of these organizations, and how to increase the value derived from them. In this blog I provide additional details on the topic by:
- Presenting the criteria and guidelines a corporation should use to start an incubator or accelerator. This is particularly appropriate for corporations that are thinking about starting an incubator or accelerator, or have just started one,
- Discussing what the corporation could do with successfully incubated projects, e.g., whether to integrate them to a business unit, or let them operate independently. This is particularly appropriate for corporations that have started an incubator or accelerator and now considering how to be utilize the incubated efforts.
This is a long post, not unlike the previous one. I felt that it was important to provide a comprehensive view on corporate incubators and accelerators with two posts rather than creating a longer series, even though I recognize that the approach may tax at least some of the readers. For this I apologize in advance.
Criteria for Starting a Corporate Incubator or Accelerator
In order to decide whether to start an incubator or accelerator, the corporation must first define its innovation objectives and associate with each objective an innovation timeline for achieving it and the corresponding innovation KPIs for monitoring its progress. For example, one of Amazon’s long-term innovation objectives is to maintain AWS’ leadership through technology innovations that enable it to continue cutting costs on its existing cloud solutions while increasing the scalability of these solutions. On the other hand, Microsoft short-term innovation objective is for Azure to become a successful fast-follower to AWS, and within a year offer capabilities that are on par with AWS’ capabilities today. The innovation objectives, combined with the timelines (long-term vs. short-term) ultimately help determine the need for establishing an incubator. It is unlikely that incubators would help a corporation achieve its short-term innovation objectives but can contribute towards the achievement of long-term ones.
To better understand the role incubators can play in achieving long-term innovation objectives let me relate a story. A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with an automotive executive about the impact of Tesla, Uber, and Google’s Self-Driving Car to the automotive industry. We spoke about the innovations each of these companies has introduced, their differing visions of transportation’s future and the threats they pose to the traditional automotive industry and its value chain. The executive indicated that his company had recently introduced an electric car so they felt less threatened by Tesla. I pointed that Tesla’s innovations went beyond the electric vehicle and included: sales model, user experience and automatic software updates, battery technology and fueling stations. These innovations pose an existential threat to the traditional automotive industry’s entire value chain including the car dealers, the gas stations, and the car repair shops to name a few. Addressing these existential threats requires the establishment of long-term innovation objectives. To address such long-term objectives in 2010 GM established its venture fund, and in 2011 BMW established its iVentures fund and incubator, whereas in 2014 Nokia created its Connected Car venture fund.
Our conversation then turned to Uber’s and Google’s transportation vision that is even scarier to automotive manufacturers because it calls for a shift away from individual car ownership and towards the adoption of transportation networks. If it succeeds it will lead to a radically reduced demand for new cars negatively impacting even more industries including automotive manufacturers, insurance, oil and gas, as well as governments that will see reduced revenue from parking, taxes, traffic violations and tolls. Google’s self-driving car will take transportation networks one step further by eliminating the drivers altogether, and through big data analytics offer dynamic pricing, like Uber, but also optimization of the number of vehicles that will be needed to serve a population. The conclusion from this conversation is: a short-term response to a market challenge does not require an incubator but a long-term one can benefit from project incubation. In fact, Google’s did; the self-driving car was conceived at Google X, the company’s internal incubator (model 3 in my taxonomy of incubator/accelerator models).
As I mentioned in the previous post, incubators and accelerators are organizations that are ideally suited for helping corporations identify and explore open-ended and ill-defined ideas that are associated with long-term timelines to ROI. Which brings us to the question on when a corporation should consider establishing an incubator or accelerator either on its own or in partnership with a third-party. Many corporations have already created incubators and accelerators (see Table 1 organized by incubation model).
|Kaplan EdTech Accelerator||Century Link|
Table 1: Partial list of corporate incubators/accelerators
For a comprehensive list of corporate innovation labs see. I would like to thank those who contributed to the above list and am looking forward to receiving the names of additional corporate incubators and accelerators.
Corporate Objectives for Establishing an Accelerator
I recommend establishing an incubator/accelerator when the corporation wants to:
- Access outside talent and innovative ideas around an open-ended objective with fast-paced innovation and long-term timelines to ROI. The established incubator/accelerator can be based on any of the four models discussed. Samsung’s Incubator is an example of this.
- Train intrapreneurs by placing them in an immersive environment where they can be educated on entrepreneurship models and have daily interactions with entrepreneurs. The established incubator/accelerator can be based on the third and fourth of the models discussed. TCS, Standard Chartered Studio, Mastercard Labs are good examples.
- Stimulate startup activity around a new platform, e.g., IBM Watson, Amazon AWS. The established incubator/accelerator can be based on the first three of the models discussed. Microsoft’s Kinect Incubator is an example.
- Spur innovation in an area (industry, sector) where little is happening, e.g., utility industry. The established incubator/accelerator can be based on the first three of the models discussed. The Nupharo Park environmental technology incubator is an example.
Teams Required for Establishing a Corporate Accelerator
Establishing an incubator or accelerator requires the formation of the following teams, also see Figure 1 in the previous post:
- Incubation selection, project selection, and final evaluation team. This team should consist of both corporate employees and outside experts. They evaluate the ideas submitted by the teams that want to be incubated and select which teams to admit in each cohort. After the ideation phase they evaluate the performance of each team in the cohort and may prune some of the teams, selecting which teams move forward with prototyping and development. At the end of each cycle they evaluate the incubated projects and typically select the top 1-3 projects.
- Mentors team. A mentor works closely with each team being incubated and helps its members work cohesively, shape their idea, explore alternatives, recruit additional members and connect with customers, potential partners and even investors. Each mentor typically works with 3-4 teams.
- Education team. This team is responsible for providing the basic concepts about startups and entrepreneurship, and present models such as lean startup and agile development. This team may consist entirely of outside speakers.
- Operations team. The members of this team include the executive managing the incubator, business development and marketing managers, the individuals supporting for incubator’s back office, and a few relationship managers whose goal is to act as liaisons between the projects being incubated and the business units, keeping them informed on the projects’ progress but, most importantly, of each project’s relevance to each business unit’s long term goals and priorities. The managing executive, along with business development managers, recruit candidate teams, and network in the incubator’s broader ecosystem, e.g., Silicon Valley, with the appropriate constituencies, e.g., venture investors, IP lawyers, etc. The back office group supports the teams being incubated (IT, financials, facilities), generally manages the incubator’s operations, and manages the joint development agreements, licensing agreements, and OEM deals with the incubated companies.
As I had also mentioned, for these efforts to succeed long term, they always need to have a strong executive sponsor within the corporation.
Whether from within the corporation or outside, recruiting the members for these teams is not easy because they are in high demand and must have a particular temperament for working with early stage entrepreneurs and their ideas. The outside members of these teams typically come from the management teams of mature or exited startups, venture firms, consulting companies, and entrepreneurs that remain involved with the startup ecosystem because they desire to give back or are looking for their next opportunity. The members that come from within the corporation ideally should come from the business units. Oftentimes they come from the financial organizations in the corporate headquarters. I have two recommendations regarding corporate employees becoming associated with the incubators:
- Recommendation 1: Corporate employees should staff the project selection and final evaluation team, as well the mentors and operations teams, particularly as relationship managers.
- Recommendation 2: Assign to the incubator/accelerator employees who are entrepreneurial, feel passionate about innovation and don’t see this assignment as a means of building large and complex corporate organizations.
As one can easily conclude, setting up a corporate incubator/accelerator requires a significant monetary and people investment. The high cost does not come from real estate, even though real estate prices in areas such as Silicon Valley are extremely high, but from identifying, recruiting and retaining the right people to staff the incubator/accelerator. Working with a third-party incubator, like Techstars, could alleviate some of these costs but the corporate investment remains high. Before starting the incubator/accelerator the corporation must determine the budget(s) that will be funding it (office of the Treasury, the corporate venture fund, or the corporate development organization) and must have a long-term and strong commitment to the organization in order to realize significant ROI during the established timeline.
Graduating from the Corporate Accelerator Program
Let’s assume that the corporation established an incubator or accelerator and out of each class of accepted teams 1-2 are selected as the best and most promising for further development. How should the corporation approach the selected startup teams, what are the issues that warrant particular attention and what are the benefits of each approach? I have identified four different options (shown in Figure 1) that relate to the first and second incubation models that were presented here. The other two models are not relevant to this analysis because they refer to internal organizations.
Figure 1: Corporate options for successfully incubated startups
The issues and benefits associated with options 1-4 are shown in Table 2. Issues relate to intellectual property, employee recruitment and retention, ownership structure, governance, identifying additional funding sources if the corporation does not want to be the sole investor in the startup, and establishing operations, when the corporation acquires the startup after its incubation period.
Table 2: Issues and benefits for each selected post-incubation option
With the last two posts I tried to provide an in-depth perspective on corporate incubators and accelerators. At a time when everything related to startups appears easy, particularly here in Silicon Valley, incubators and accelerators are not recommended for every corporation. Incubators are appropriate for exploring open-ended and ill-defined ideas that are associated with long-term innovation timelines and ROI. However, they can play an important role in the set of options that enable a corporation to achieve its innovation goals, access entrepreneurial talent and even develop its own intrapreneurs. For this reason I offered the criteria and guidelines corporation should use when establishing an incubator or an accelerator. I proposed four incubator models and a process that can help corporations increase the value and success they derive from their incubators or accelerators. The biggest challenge is how to deal with successfully incubated projects since that is the time when the corporate processes and bureaucracy will need to full engage. To help with this issue I provided a methodology on what the corporation could do with such projects. All these points to the fact that working with incubators and accelerators requires that a corporation has a long-term horizon and strong commitment in order to achieve the significant innovation ROI that is possible.