Community Knowledge

Maximising Impact and Legacy for Corporate and Startups

Whitespace logo By Whitespace

Accelerators are a fundamental element of contemporary innovation. For those in other Corporate departments, they have even become synonymous with what the broad discipline is.

The Whitespace TIER group discussing potential ideas for information, experience and insight innovation

As such, the accelerator concept can escape considered scrutiny. After all, us innovators cracked what makes a good accelerator long ago, didn’t we?

Well, maybe not. For one, innovation is a dynamic entity and one that couples with a fast-changing world. There is still no absolute definition of what a Corporate innovation accelerator constitutes, and many continue to be founded on misguided assumptions, or shaped without considering how to deliver the best offering bespoke to a particular need.

With all that in mind, the Corporate Innovation Community gathered to put questions to a hosted panel of expert voices. It provided an opportunity to explore accelerator best practice and look at building convention around the approach. Serving as panel host, Whitespace Founding Partner and Evangelist Andrew McCartney was joined on stage by the following:

On the day the audience was as involved as those on stage, leading to a fascinating conversation around making accelerators the best they can be. This report summarises that conversation.

Key Takeaways

Why do Corporations run accelerators, and who are they really for?

It is a rather obvious statement, but accelerators are ultimately a tool to allow Corporations to innovate. Any company that enjoys sustained growth may eventually reach the point of being too large to be meaningfully agile or innovative. And yet innovation and evolution are near essential in a changing world. As such, an accelerator is a mechanism of Corporate innovation, developed and deployed to meet that need.

However, several insights in the room at the Corporate Innovation Community gathering together highlighted the fact that accelerators, in particular, have become something of a ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of the Corporate innovator’s toolset. They serve many different roles and take numerous forms, even within a single organisation. To a degree, the motivations and priorities of such accelerators are as varied as the number of accelerators that exist. Their prime function should always be about fostering, enabling and empowering innovation. And yet the panel and audience identified a number of common roles that Accelerators can meet beyond that, sometimes in isolation, but often simultaneously. As such, accelerators can be hosted as:

What’s needed in 2020 to implement and execute a successful and impactful corporate Accelerator program?

Accelerators should have in mind more than proof of concept as a final goal. POC is highly important, and can exist as a meaningful milestone and motivating focal point. But paying mind to and preparing for the life of an accelerator beyond the POC stage can prove fundamental to achieving various results with regard to the wider Corporation and the startups involved. The notion of the legacy of an accelerator existing beyond its close is explored in more detail further below.

Additionally, while high profile names from the Corporate realm and senior staff involvement can lend tremendous value and potential to an accelerator, do not forget the potential of bringing on board relevant external specialists, even if they are not famous or influential. Involving people with significant accelerator experience is crucial, including founders that have been through the process. Welcoming entrepreneurs to the fold can also bring tremendous benefits, while expertise in a given subject relative to an accelerators aims can prove crucial. These may read like obvious insights, but too often accelerators lack a diversity of input and expert voices.

Startups are also becoming increasingly ‘accelerator savvy’, while at the same time being somewhat spoiled for choice as to the sheer volume of available and active accelerators. Aside from being sure your Corporation actually needs to run a given accelerator – and installing that initiative with clear gains and aims for all involved – it is key that you communicate the goals, outcomes, resources and other factors while resisting buzzwords and cloudy definitions or descriptions; the latter may inspire cynicism from savvy founders. Increasingly startups require and expect clear, plainly worded information about resources, post accelerator agreements, long-term aims, specific structuring, expected process and so on. Think of yourself as serving startups; not offering them an unrivalled opportunity. They now have the luxury of shopping around.

Meanwhile, be clear and frank about the Corporations’ aims and expectations; a startup has little to gain in joining a PR exercise. Be open with regard to the fact that you need startups as much as they need you. Equally, you have to offer more than sales channels and routes to market; particularly when the startups involved may be far from that part of their roadmap. Different startups will ultimately want different things, but any offering that brings together technology, expertise, sales channels, access to market and so on must offer those things in a connected, meaningfully integrated way.

And do not confuse accelerators and incubators. Look frankly at what you want to achieve, and stick to the plan. Accelerators that evolve gradually to be incubators, for example, can fail on all fronts.

How should a corporation frame or theme a given accelerator?

A significant focus of the discussion in the room focused on the somewhat academic notion of corporations being guilty of ‘not knowing what they know’. In other words, how does a corporation recognise what value it can bring, or identify the most meaningful strengths at its disposal?
Part of the answer to those questions may come in focusing on an accelerator. Research, network and discussion with colleagues outside your innovation department should essentially guide your offering. But it may be equally valuable to consider a theme than compliments or supports your organisation’s core business and future plans.

Accelerators are typically themed to give them focus, and to bring together startups and experts that can share and develop related knowledge and technology. They are, to a degree, about providing a shared learning experience. As such, it makes sense to have a unifying focus. It was noted, however, that often accelerators are themed around high profile trends rather than clear needs. Typical examples of such trends would include blockchain, big data, augmented reality and AI. All of those are important technologies ripe with potential for Corporates and startups, and they can absolutely make for a good focal point for accelerators that go on to deliver purposeful, relevant results. However, accelerators should perhaps always be themed around need. Exploring blockchain may be a need. But perhaps you are a transport organisation looking to improve customer experience or a producer of high-tech engines keen to ramp up manufacturing supply chain efficiency. Blockchain may be one of many answers to those challenges, yet it is but a type of solution. A blockchain-themed accelerator may simply unearth different applications of that singular technology, rather than different technologies that address a singular challenge.

Themes that address a direct need may well attract a diversity of start-ups that bring distinct ideas while sharing overlap with regard to their offerings. An agri-tech accelerator, for example, could attract start-ups that share highly related knowledge while deploying very distinct technologies and approaches. That presents a significant opportunity for collective learning and problem-solving. Provide the opportunity for startups to learn together and from one another. You may find that approach means the development of different POCs from the realms of blockchain, AI and the rest. Theme an accelerator around just one trend, meanwhile, and the breadth of results or outputs may be considerably more limited.

However, any theme should also offer startups a means to develop their existing products and services, explore new markets or regions, gain hands-on experience with the conventions of their target sectors, or face existing challenges and problems. Simply put, a theme that meaningfully serves Corporates and startups alike can deliver a more meaningful accelerator for both. That approach can also bring more focus and has a knack for unveiling unexpected solutions or approaches.

Key signs for startups that an accelerator is valuable

The following factors were highlighted as being important to startups in identifying valuable and sincere accelerators. Therefore, they can also serve to shape the accelerator offerings Corporations make.

How should Corporates secure management and C-suite approval for accelerators?

As something of a perennial talking point for Corporate innovators, many of the general rules of seeking approval and backing for innovation efforts apply here. Communicating the value of innovation to senior team members and managers is key; assert what happens without accelerator efforts, as much as what happens if they are enacted. The message is clear: a modern Corporation cannot afford not to innovate if it wishes to thrive and even survive. Accelerators are a powerful tool or solution through which to meet the fundamental need for innovation.

And ultimately, senior colleagues may not just offer backing, but evangelism and even direct input. To inspire such devoted backing, deliberately involve and engage senior staff; invite them to contribute, even if in a small way. Host ‘micro accelerators’ or similar innovation projects specifically for C-suite and managers to attend, providing them with both a hands-on sense of what an accelerator is, and the feeling of optimism and empowerment it can engender. Always consider ‘educating up’ around innovation, and breeding enthusiasm.

It was also suggested that Corporate innovators look to the collaborative innovation efforts where universities such as MIT, Harvard, UCL and other leading educators have thrived in founding meaningful accelerators well supported across those institutions.

A particularly alternative perspective was also offered, suggesting that it may sometimes take years of effort to merely half-convince C-suite. It was put forward – albeit slightly playfully – that in some contexts continuing regardless of enthusiastic senior team backing may be the only path forward. This option, of course, is high risk and requires very careful consideration.

It was also suggested that Corporate innovators look to the collaborative innovation efforts where universities such as MIT, Harvard, UCL and other leading educators have thrived in founding meaningful accelerators well supported across those institutions.

A particularly alternative perspective was also offered, suggesting that it may sometimes take years of effort to merely half-convince C-suite. It was put forward – albeit slightly playfully – that in some contexts continuing regardless of enthusiastic senior team backing may be the only path forward. This option, of course, is high risk and requires very careful consideration.

How should corporations extend the impact of accelerators beyond proof of concept?

It was pointed out during the meeting on a number of occasions that many accelerators and similar initiatives use POC as their final milestone or closing goal, but lack planning beyond that point. There is something of a chasm between POC and delivering a product to market – the latter sometimes being the ultimate outcome of an accelerator. As such, conversation in the room often turned to exploring how accelerators can be conceived and shaped so as to bridge that chasm even after they have technically completed as a process.

It was suggested that building an in-house mechanism to continue the legacy of any accelerator is key – and doing so long before that accelerator begins is close to essential. Often, POCs born from accelerators can find themselves in limbo, tangled up by red tape, and limited by lack of a clear pipeline towards the future. Braving robust conversations with those that control budgets and approvals is, therefore, something that we may need to see more of across the Corporate innovation landscape.

Assuring that an accelerator leaves a legacy can also come down to giving innovation staff the freedom, flexibility and capacity to maintain relationships with startups and founders after an accelerator has concluded. On a related note, it was recommended that staff running an accelerator are also put in charge of any portfolio of companies that successfully pass through the process. That can assure relevant founders and their products or services continue to be managed after the close of an accelerator, even if with less intensity and regularity. An accelerator may strictly end with a demo day, but plan for much managing of relationships, products, technologies and potential after that point.

How to best assess interested startups?

Little is more important to a successful accelerator than the quality and relevance of its startups. Yet an accelerator can ask a lot of a startup. A team with maybe just three or four members may have to be deft at pitching and presenting, software engineering, networking, company management, adopting Corporate convention, understanding finance and business, and much more besides.

A team with a perfect technology or idea for a given startup understandably may not boast of all those qualities, and they should still be considered. It’s certainly worth putting the effort into finding founders and teams that do bring a broad sweep of skills to the table; in-person meetings and accounting for giving each applying startup ample time for review may be key factors there. But equally, consider offering skills training as part of an accelerator’s offering. A company formed entirely of coders, for example, may appreciate basic mentoring on public speaking and pitching, or a primer in the investment process.

There is much to say for bringing on board experienced startups; but you may find that offering some form of skills training offers more appeal to more startups, brings in applications from atypical and as yet underexposed outfits that are truly innovative, and means your Corporation gets more meaningful results from the experience.