By Ted Stuckey, Managing Director of QBE Ventures
My goal is to make QBE a partner of choice for startups. It’s hard work, sometimes, finding the right startups that will grow or expand QBE into new markets or drive operational and process efficiencies, and then working with so many parts of QBE internally to bring the partnership to fruition. But the results—like QBE’s new partnership with Nimbla—are worth all the effort.
Balancing Both Sides of a Tricky Equation
Our Network Engagement Partnering with Techstars has been extremely helpful, as they are able to support me on both sides of this tricky equation. When I’m looking for startups across the insurance value chain, Techstars enables me to identify and quickly vet an ongoing flow of potential partners. Then, because so many Techstars employees—my Techstars Network Engagement Program manager included—are founders themselves, they help me see the places where QBE needs to change in order to be responsive to startup needs. Having a third party push us to become a better partner to startups, as well as sharing best practices, was essential for making change happen.
Most recently, Techstars helped us secure a partnership that I’m really proud of, bringing QBE and Nimbla together. We’ve just announced that QBE is partnering with Nimbla to give small businesses the peace of mind and confidence that they need to reach their full potential.
The Future is Now
I knew right from the start that Nimbla was something special. They went through the 2018 Barclays Accelerator powered by Techstars in London, and though they were very early stage, the accelerator helped them grow in a way that made them enterprise-ready.
Nimbla is an invoice insurance startup that enables businesses to check the risk of non-payment on invoices and protect the ones they’re worried about. For QBE, this is huge. This was something we were looking at, but we all thought it was a few years out.
This kind of thing is exactly the reason why corporations like QBE have to be watching and partnering with startups. If we hadn’t, we would still be watching this opportunity and waiting. There’s no way around it, corporations just move and innovate at a different speed from startups. But with Nimbla, we expect to power QBE’s go-to-market strategy for a whole new target market—today, rather than in five years. I’m expecting to see a great impact, for both QBE and Nimbla.
Big Impacts to the Big Picture
I like to think that, along with driving Nimbla’s business goals, we’ve helped them see the big picture in a new way. We’ve pushed them to do something new in the market and to run their business differently. They’ve seen a vision of who they can be as a business five, 10, 15 years down the road.
Working with startups like Nimbla has definitely had an impact on QBE, way beyond the bottom line. Nimbla came before a group of people who have made a career in the insurance industry, and inspired them to recognize alternative ways of doing things, alternative ways of using data, and alternative ways of providing benefits to our customers. That’s a shift toward entrepreneurial culture that we couldn’t have done on our own. We needed Techstars, and we needed to get in deep with startups in order to really see and feel that difference.
We are working hard for QBE to be the partner of choice for startups, so that we can make more great deals like this happen.
Captain Steve Lauver is the Director of Technology Accelerators for AFWERX, a program that seeks to foster innovation within the US Air Force. Lauver oversees AFWERX’s accelerator, which links up active duty Air Force, Reserve Air Force, contracted personnel, and startups to solve problems.
Five Elements For a Successful Startup Initiative
In order for an innovation cell to exist within any organization, there need to be a couple of stakeholders aligned. We actually look at this. We call it the five-node process or the five-node approach.
- The first and most important node is what we think of as the entrepreneur. That’s the person who has the idea. … They’re the ones that are passionate about solving a problem and who understand the problem. …
- The second one—and this is really key to any innovation program—is leadership buy-in or top cover. If you’re doing something differently or against the grain, you will hit barriers. Having leadership [have] your back is so important for greasing the skids and removing those barriers when they pop up. …
- The next one is, in my opinion, are the unsung heroes in many cases. That’s the contract and legal support. … It’s the lawyers who are saying, “Is this legal, ethical, or not?” We need to have them aligned from the beginning of any new project all the way through to the end because, if we don’t, they’re going to become one of those barriers that we have to figure out a way around or to work with.
- A funding partner. Whenever we take on a project, we want to follow an actual real problem. … Having an organization that says, “I have a real problem. I’ve got funding to solve it, if you can find there’s a solution.” It’s super-important.
- The last one is the actual solution. … Either a tech solution or…a policy solution.
Define the Problem, Not the Solutions
We had a tendency to—and this is [common] across the world, not just in the government—see a problem and then to say what we think the solution is, instead of just saying the problem.[H]ere’s an example. … If we want to see over a hill for whatever military purpose, what we have a tendency to do is to say, “Look, I need you guys to create me a satellite that’s going to be in geo orbit. It’s going to have these specifications.” Very specific, and, in reality, we just wanted to see over the hill. We don’t care if they come back with a hot air balloon or a carrier pigeon with a camera on it.
If they can give us the most affordable, most effective solution, whatever that looks like, that’s great. [We are] shifting towards a culture of telling companies our problems, and less so what we think the solutions look like [to] solve that problem. …
Advice for Other Government Innovators
The first one would be, “Come talk to us,” for sure. Talk to anyone that’s done it before, because we make so many mistakes. We make tons of mistakes. We’re fortunate to have a culture from leadership down that says, “It’s okay to make mistakes. Just fix them fast, and move forward…”
The second…is just get good people, and put them in a room, and don’t over-control them. There’s an “it factor” when you’re talking to people in any organization, but especially in the Department of Defense or in any particular service…when you talk to somebody, you say, “Wow, this person is inspired. They get it. They want to make a difference.”
… Get a small group [of those kind of people] together and then just start to talk about it. It’s like primordial soup. You just get the right people together and something good will happen. … Just get good people, and put them in a room, and don’t over-control them.
Today marks the start of the 2019 Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars. This will be the second year of the program, and the 11th accelerator I will have run as a Managing Director at Techstars (the most of anyone at the organization). It’s also the one I am most excited about.
This year’s program continues where we left off last year with our focus remaining the same: connectivity, media, and entertainment. We spent the last several months meeting entrepreneurs from around the world. With applications from nearly 50 countries, we ultimately selected companies from cities including Bangalore, Boulder, Kiev, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Toronto. We are especially excited by the diversity of this year’s class, with nearly one-third of our companies led by female CEOs.
Over the next 13 weeks these 11 companies will work with more than 100 mentors to grow and refine their businesses. They will hear from seasoned founders and industry leaders and test their assumptions with business leaders from our partner, Comcast NBCUniversal. They will be trained in how to pitch and work with the press and visit 30 Rockefeller Center, headquarters of NBC, to hear from experts in media. Finally, they’ll experience everything that Philadelphia, their home for the next three months, has to offer, including the new Comcast Technology Center, where LIFT Labs will occupy an entire state-of-the-art floor dedicated to working with the startup community.
None of this would have been possible without the support of all of our mentors and alums who met with countless founders and provided guidance during the selection process. I’d also like to thank the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs team for their continued support and commitment to collaboration. Over the past couple months, I have gotten to know the team and am certain that this is a truly special program. We will be sharing more about each company over the next several weeks leading up to Demo Day on October 10th, but for now please join us in welcoming the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, Powered by Techstars Class of 2019!
Diana AI is a conversational business intelligence and analytics tool that enables non-technical users to access enterprise data and analyze it easily, using natural language via voice or text.
edisn.ai delivers interactive and personalized content to sports fans by applying its AI-powered player recognition engine to live video streams in real time.
GameOn increases live sports engagement by turning complicated stats and odds into simple prediction games for the everyday fan.
Messy.fm is the all-in-one podcasting solution for businesses, brands, and individuals to record, edit, and publish unlimited episodes for free.
NICKL enables individuals and organizations to personalize and manage their digital content subscriptions in one place.
Pivan provides advanced training and analytics for competitive gaming athletes, powered by computer vision and AI.
Respeecher uses AI technology to transform voices, allowing one person to speak in the voice of another.
Sporttrade is a free prediction market where users can buy and sell outcomes of sporting events like stocks.
Struct Club elevates how music-inspired fitness instructors choreograph and deliver classes.
TakeShape enables one-click integrations that allow developers to easily combine data from the JAMstack without having to write new code.
The GIST provides sports content, experiences, and community for women.
In January 2018, John Geyer took on an expanded role at MetLife, the Manhattan-based insurer: CEO of MetLife Digital Ventures, overseeing direct investments into startups as well as a new startup accelerator run in North Carolina, where the company has a technology campus. Geyer is also MetLife’s Chief Innovation Officer. We spoke with him about how he works with colleagues to understand new capabilities they need; how the company works with venture capital firms; and a new program modeled after E-ZPass, intended to enable MetLife to launch pilot tests and proof-of-concepts more quickly.
Making the Case
One of the four pillars of our enterprise strategy is operational excellence, and under that is a sub-pillar called external orientation. Leadership takes that seriously. It could be a customer orientation, and really understanding and having empathy for the customer. It could be orientation around competitors and the industry. And it could also be around what the next generation of capabilities will be…
The drumbeat of external orientation has been going on for a number of years, and it is now an embedded expectation in our leadership team that when you think through opportunities and challenges, you’re doing it with an external orientation.
Bringing the Business In
We interview 100-plus leaders across MetLife each year and ask them, “What capabilities would give you strategic advantage?” We do it with claims people, salespeople, underwriting people, and product people. We collect their requirements, and we share them with the VC firms and say, “Here are the things that our businesspeople are looking for. Whaddaya got?” They’ll make intros [to startups they have invested in], and my team will work with an internal group to drive proof-of-concepts to see if those emerging capabilities [can help our business].
We’ve driven more than 100 proof of concepts over the last four years, and about 30 of those have turned into commercial agreements.
In our vernacular, a pilot is when you put [something] in front of customers. A POC is proving it out within the company. Some things might be internal tools for us, like a cyber tool that can strengthen our environment. For that, we’ll do a POC to validate it.
Our Venture Capital Strategy
When it comes to startups, we made a decision as an enterprise over ten years ago that we were going to invest in the venture capital firms themselves as part of our overall investment portfolio. We invest hundreds of billions of our customers’ money so that we can pay them back when we need to. Most is invested very conservatively, but we have taken a small portion and put it into alternative investments like hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital. Today we have north of $1 billion invested in 17 of the leading venture capital firms…so that gives us a unique vantage point [about] where the markets are going, and where innovation is going.
A next evolutionary step [that] we’ve taken is that very often, one or more of these 17 venture capital firms will come to us and say, “We’ve come across this company, and we think it’s particularly strategically relevant to you.” In the past, we’d say, “We really don’t do that type of direct investing.” We didn’t spin up an internal corporate VC group [to source] deals or lead deals. But we have freed up $100 million so that when those opportunities come our way, we can participate alongside of our VC partners. The only circumstance where we’d make a co-investment is if we believe that the capability that the company has is strategically relevant to MetLife, and can create new forms of customer value. An example of that last year was Enigma, [a startup focused on extracting intelligence from data].
Launching a New Accelerator
Last year, we announced that we had entered into an agreement with Techstars to create the MetLife Digital Accelerator, powered by Techstars. They’ve been around for years, and have had a track record of success…
The term accelerator has taken on lots of different definitions and meanings. When we really looked beneath the covers of Y Combinator, and 500 Startups, and the regional ones, many of them are just about, “Hey, startups, join our network and we’ll provide you some informal coaching, plus a little seed capital.” What we liked about Techstars is it is…a defined, 13-week intensive program, where the founders have to co-locate on your campus. That’s unique and powerful, and it explains a lot of the success they’ve had. … We dedicate MetLife people from all over the company to be mentors—people that range from product to channel to operations, claims, strategy, technology…
We ran our first program with them in Cary, N.C. last fall, and graduated 10 companies. We’re recruiting 10 companies for this year’s accelerator. [Techstars] believes that each one gets better. It’s not the kind of thing you do once, declare victory, and go home.
… In the most recent accelerator, we had a range of companies [at various stages of product maturity]. A couple were really concepts that just needed to be fleshed out. Some had a very primitive minimum viable product, but three or four had a product you could put in front of customers. All of that is interesting to us. The earlier we can get in, and help shape it and direct it towards the needs of our customers, the better.
From the accelerator, we are looking to pilot in some way…with six of the ten companies that participated.
Innovation Starts in Labs and Universities
Innovation is a chain, and it starts very early with invention in labs and universities, where you have students creating new capabilities, but not necessarily thinking about commercialization. We have a very strategic partnership with the MIT Media Lab…
Some Startup Engagement Examples
We have worked with a company called Captricity [now known as Vidado], which does optical character recognition on steroids. Their technology ingests documents, even handwritten documents, with an accuracy rate that in many ways exceeds human capabilities. And in our business, there are a fair amount of paper documents still, when you’re dealing with doctors and dental records. We’re implementing it all over the company now very successfully.
Enroll Hero is a startup from our accelerator. Our mission is to help people navigate life, particularly during difficult times. When people are getting ready to retire and choosing a Medicare plan, it can be complicated and overwhelming. Enroll Hero allows you to enter profile information about yourself. It has all of the details of the different plans and options, and it presents the plan best-suited for your needs, [taking into account] your age and health and state. We piloted it with some MetLife customers, and we were very surprised at the take-up rate…
From the very beginning, we looked at measuring success through two lenses. One is activity, and one is results. Often, people say, “My company only cares about results; activity is bad.” But in the world of innovation, if you don’t drive the right activities, you don’t get the right results.
For us, an activity would be saying, “We’re going to interview 120 people this year, and identify 25 POCs or pilots, and enter into 8 or 10 contracts this year. We also run internal innovation programs, like brainstorming sessions and facilitated sessions. So we keep track of how many associates we engaged, and how many managers we trained. Those are all activities.[Results include things like] how much growth we generated, or how much efficiency. Did we improve associate engagement or enhance the customer experience. Those four measures are the four categories we measure to judge the success of the program.
One of the things that has frustrated the startups and the VC world for decades is how slow large companies move when it comes to pilots and POCs. It is really the Achille’s heel…
We wanted to create an effort called Pilot E-ZPass—it became known as Pilot Onboard Process. We met with the people across MetLife in procurement, legal, regulatory, architecture—all of the different constituencies who have a say when a vendor comes in. We said, “We want an E-ZPass system for these small vendors that isn’t weighted down by bureaucracy. Everyone bought in. We rolled it out last year. [It covers both pilots and proof-of-concepts.]
From the beginning, we said we wanted it to be less than a month [to get a pilot or proof-of-concept approved]. If it’s less than a month, it’s good. It took quite a while to bring everyone along, because you want to protect the corporation. We had to really educate them about what were trying to accomplish—that we were not trying to do end-runs around important provisions of contracts. I would say it took probably a year from when we conceived of doing it to when it was fully implemented. But the first half of it was introductory meetings and selling. The last half was creating documents and getting decision rights clear.
Partnering with startups is a great way to accelerate the entire corporate innovation journey. In fact, Techstars and Innovation Leader recently partnered to reveal best practices for leveraging startups to drive corporate innovation.
A well-run corporate accelerator can be directed to align with your specific needs and goals to:
- Help startups and their technology evolve in ways that meet your corporate needs, so the company builds the perfect product for you;
- See the future of your industry through the lens of entrepreneurs who are trying to disrupt it;
- Shift company culture to move faster and reduce inefficiencies and costs.
In order to meet these goals you will want to check that what you’re looking at is truly an accelerator. The Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator is not a field trip, hackathon, or “innovation theater.” It is a comprehensive solution to accelerate innovation. The best corporate accelerators include:
- Program leadership with a demonstrated history of growing their own companies and helping other startups succeed;
- Early-stage startups that can partner to meet your corporate needs or accelerate industry disruption.
- Curriculum for founders that both helps their startups succeed and de-risks investments for the corporations.
- Strong mentorship, providing founders and executives with the opportunity to learn from each other and build strong networks;
- Commitment, and the understanding that your accelerator will grow in value and returns over time, through a stronger investment strategy and internal corporate capability.
Five Ways To Get The Most Out of Your Corporate Accelerator
At Techstars, we have seven years of experience running corporate accelerators. To date, we have run 83 corporate accelerators in 12 different countries. Through our experience we’ve distilled five key principles that we share with our corporate partners—before the accelerator begins.
You’ll get as much out of the accelerator as you put into it.
This is truly the number one piece of advice for corporations going into their first year of an accelerator program. In fact, it’s the number one piece of advice for the founders as well.
The inaugural Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, Powered by Techstars, successfully launched in 2018, and is welcoming a second class in Philadelphia in July 2019. With a corporate accelerator, “You’ll get as much out of it as you put into it,” said Danielle Cohn, Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Engagement and the Head of LIFT Labs for Comcast NBCUniversal. “You need to have a dedicated team to work with your partner. It takes a lot of time, energy, and effort to educate your internal stakeholders, but without this, you won’t have buy-in from the company. You won’t meet your goals.”
Matt Kozlov, Managing Director at Techstars, who has managed three classes of the Cedars-Sinai Accelerator, Powered by Techstars and is now preparing for the first year of the Techstars Starburst Space Accelerator, agreed: “The program is only as valuable as the amount of time and attention the executives and the organization pay to it.”
Cohn explained, “We hired Techstars to run our program, but you can’t just do that and walk away. The benefit of having an outside partner is that you’re learning from them and they’re learning from you, and you’re each accessing the other’s subject matter expertise.” Involvement and outright enthusiasm from your corporate leadership will ensure that everyone knows that the accelerator is a priority. Get executives involved as mentors, and they will both help the startups in the program succeed and bring back profound lessons on startup speed and flexibility to their regular jobs.
One great way to ensure that the accelerator gets the support it needs from the corporation is to build engagement with the accelerator into goals or KPIs for everyone involved. Offer incentives—bonuses or other rewards—for outstanding work on the accelerator. Most of all, make it clear to the entire corporation that work on the accelerator is now part of the job, not something tacked on. If you don’t do this, the accelerator can too easily become an afterthought, rather than a launchpad for successful corporate innovation.
2) With startups, the team is exponentially more important than the product. Choose founders who are flexible and take feedback well.
One error that corporations consistently make when choosing startups for their corporate accelerator is getting excited about a company’s product or tech, and ignoring the team.
The startups that benefit most from an accelerator are early stage. Their product is likely still evolving—in fact, this can be a benefit to your corporation, because you can work directly with the startup to develop a product that meets your needs.
“A great founding team can take feedback from every level of the corporation, and then incorporate that feedback into a product. They can adapt to what the corporation is looking for,” Kozlov said. “When you create the right environment, where startups can interface across the entire corporation, then the corporation and the startup can collaborate over three months, and the result is incredible companies and partnerships.”
Kozlov recalled one startup that pivoted early on, and ended up going through at least fifty different product ideas with a corporation before they found one “big enough and important enough to execute on.” A couple of years later, this company is the most valuable one to come through that program.
When selecting companies for the program, over-emphasize finding the best teams, and the products will develop organically.
3) Startups move very, very fast. Be prepared to work with this—and learn from it.
“Founders move very, very fast. They have a different cadence from a large organization,” said Yossi Hasson, currently Managing Director of the Alchemist Blockchain Techstars Accelerator and formerly MD of the Barclays Accelerator, Powered by Techstars in Cape Town.
This difference in pace poses both challenges and opportunities. Jens Festervoll, corporate liaison for the Techstars Energy Accelerator in Partnership with Equinor, experienced this firsthand during Equinor’s first accelerator. He reported that nearly 80% of the mentors who worked regularly with startups in the program said that they would work differently in the future, with more agility. This taste of startup speed became the seeds of cultural change, as executives started to see ways to be faster and more flexible in their working lives, making them more efficient and more engaged.
Techstars Network Engagement partner QBE strives to be a “Partner of Choice” for startups, and finding ways to work at startup speed is one part of their plan. Ted Stuckey, Managing Director of QBE Ventures, explained: “Our belief isn’t that startups should be held to a lower standard of security/risk, but rather that we have to be able to address those risk and security concerns faster than we do with companies that have the capacity and teams dedicated to dealing with a large corporations’ processes.”
Learning how to work at a different pace, and the impact that has on process and procedure, can be challenging. In the end, the biggest opportunity is learning how to add sprints into your marathon training.
4) Streamline your procurement process before the program begins.
“A startup in a 13 week accelerator expects things to happen really quickly,” Hasson said. “Do everything you can—before the program starts—to shorten the amount of time it takes for your corporation to work with these startups.”
Both Hasson and Kozlov agree that doing as much as you can in advance to help startups navigate your procurement processes is best. The standard legal review process, for example, can be a huge hurdle for startups. “Legal fees can kill a startup,” said Kozlov.
“Take some time to really understand what the procurement process is before the program starts,” Kozlov said. “Turn as many pieces as possible into short, simple templates that startups can easily use.” Kozlov also suggests setting aside some R&D budget in advance, so there’s money available to support companies in their commercial pursuits with the corporation.
Meeting startups halfway—by streamlining forms and processes or taking meetings quickly—is essential to making the progress you’re hoping for from the program. An accelerator program goes by very quickly, and you won’t want to waste any time.
5) The program isn’t over when it’s over.
Founders often tell us that they accomplish more in the three months of a Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator than they would in a year and a half without it. But even at this highly accelerated pace, there’s plenty to do afterward.
Your involvement with the startups in the program doesn’t end with Demo Day. If all has gone well, during the program these startups have learned a great deal about your needs, and together you’re starting to run pilots or develop products.
Cohn is proud to report that eight of the 10 startups from the 2018 Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, Powered by Techstars are now working with Comcast NBCUniversal brands including Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal, and Universal Brand Studios.
“It took a lot of hard work from the companies themselves, from our team, our business leaders and mentors, and from the procurement team,” Cohn said. “We all wanted to help these companies grow and try new things, and that effort from across the corporation led to this exceptional success rate.”
Looking Toward Year Two…
All of these learnings hold true for subsequent years of your accelerator as well. The big opportunity after year one is to do all of them even better and to streamline the processes even further.
Follow this advice, and your corporation will almost certainly meet its innovation goals. That’s a predictable result. The surprise you may find as you start to engage with the accelerator is how much the mentors from your corporation will learn from the process—and enjoy it.
“Our mentors learned as much from the companies as they gave,” said Cohn. “They’re all eagerly awaiting the next class. They can’t wait to mentor again!”
Not Ready for a Corporate Accelerator? That’s OK.
A corporate accelerator is one of the best ways to stimulate true innovation, but if your corporation isn’t ready for the commitment of a corporate accelerator, there are other great, quick ways to engage in valuable and meaningful ways with startups. You can boost intrapreneurship within your corporation by running an Innovation Bootcamp—a three-day event that empowers your internal innovators to solve real problems. You can build lasting relationships with entrepreneurs through sponsorships. You can engage directly with targeted startups in your industry that are solving your problems right now.
When you’re ready to accelerate innovation in your corporation, Techstars is ready to help.
Learn more about Techstars Mentorship-Driven Corporate Accelerators.
Learn more about all of Techstars Corporate Partnership Opportunities.
If you spot a blur speeding through the bright, airy space occupied by Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars, it’s probably Danielle Cohn.
She’s the Executive Director of Entrepreneurial Engagement and the Head of LIFT Labs for Comcast NBCUniversal, and she moves fast. Officially, she’s the corporate liaison, but her true role is so much more. As she explained, “Really, our team was side by side with the startups the whole time they were in the program.” She and her team met with the 10 startups in the program every week, helping them refine what they were looking for from their other mentors. “We helped them hone in on the outcomes they were interested in. We’re about getting results.” She also helped them connect with business units within Comcast NBCUniversal that might be interested in giving them feedback.
Danielle is an entrepreneur, as well. “I’ve had a couple of startups myself,” she said. “I’ve always had a side passion project because I’ve found it keeps me fresh.” She’s the first to say how much she learns from other startups. “I work with startups every day, and it gives me a reality check when I have my own. You have to be extremely nimble; you’re doing it all for yourself!”
Her experience on both sides of the startup-corporate divide makes her the perfect bridge between these two such very different entities. She is determined that both the startups and her corporation get the most out of the accelerator—and during the 13 weeks of the program, eight startups got a pilot off the ground, an exceptional success rate. By the end of the calendar year, three companies had additional contracts with Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal, or DreamWorks, and all the rest were still working with some part of the corporation. Three of the companies now have a presence in Philadelphia.
How does she do it? She has four rules for herself—and other mentors. Here’s how to mentor—and Give First—like Danielle does:
1) Have fun doing this.
“Mentoring shouldn’t feel like a burden. It should feel like something you want to do,” Danielle says. If you don’t have the time, be honest—with yourself and with the founder—and bow out. Otherwise, let yourself enjoy the craziness of watching—and helping—a startup grow, change, and find itself over the course of 13 weeks. Or even beyond… Some mentors stay involved with the companies well after the accelerator program ends.
2) Be responsive.
“They only have 13 weeks. You’ve got to be responsive,” Danielle says, and you know she means it. Fortunately, she has some additional advice on how to do this well. “If you need to, bring someone to do your follow up. You’re going to walk out of the meeting with a to-do list of asks.” Someone has to do them—if not you, then your designated representative can look up names, make introductions, find that elusive bit of data that wasn’t at your fingertips when you wanted it. The important thing is that if you say you’ll do something, it gets done—fast.
3) Set expectations.
“Part of your responsibility as a mentor is helping the founder realize that 10 asks just isn’t realistic. They have to pick one to move forward with.” At least one at a time. Yes, you’re a mentor, but that doesn’t mean you have endless bandwidth. You can also help them understand which of their asks is going to do the most to get them where they want to go.
4) Be ready to learn.
“Mentoring is a very rewarding experience, and I highly recommend it.” Along with the pleasure of sharing knowledge comes the very real experience of learning from the entrepreneur you’re supposed to be mentoring. “I learn from startups all the time,” Danielle says.
Techstars connects the world’s largest corporations with the most promising technology startups. Learn more about becoming a Techstars partner!
By Ted Stuckey, Managing Director of QBE Ventures
For the past year, we’ve been promoting—both internally and externally—the concept of QBE becoming the “partner of choice” for startups. We’ve been inspired by the work that companies like Barclays and Stanley Black & Decker have put into their partnerships with Techstars. One of many great examples is the collaboration between Crowdz and Barclays to move B2B payments online. Stanley has not only reaped multiple benefits through pilots and collaborations, but they’ve also shown a clear commitment to helping their partners grow through funding and other follow-on support. Many of the decisions and initiatives we, as QBE and as QBE Ventures, have made and undertaken are a direct derivation of this idea.
But what does being the partner of choice mean?
As one of the largest international commercial and specialty insurance carriers, pivoting and adapting takes time. We’ve recognized that we cannot adapt to the changing times by ourselves and that we need to find partners who will help us and challenge us to be better. In an industry ripe for disruption, we need partners who will dispute the status quo and push us to reexamine our assumptions.
The need to collaborate with startups—and the benefits of collaborating—are unquestionable; however, too often we’ve seen partnerships fail and result in disillusionment on both sides.
Here are a few of our key learnings for successful collaborations between corporations and startups.
Speed it Up
Corporations need to be much more forthcoming and transparent about what their requirements and processes are. One of the healthy debates we’ve been having as a company is whether or not startups should be given special treatment. Over the last few months, our stance as the Ventures team is yes—but not necessarily in the way that you might imagine.
Our belief isn’t that startups should be held to a lower standard of security/risk, but rather that we have to be able to address those risk and security concerns faster than we do with companies that have the capacity and teams dedicated to dealing with a large corporations’ processes.
Startups often don’t have the resources in place to engage in a multi-month process of negotiations and paperwork. On the flip side, as a corporate partner, and hopefully one of the first large enterprises many of our future startup partners will work with, it’s our responsibility to help the startup understand what is essential when working with a large enterprise and to help prepare them for future interactions with less startup-friendly enterprises.
Innovation at the Desk Level
Corporations must strive to engage with startups and be innovative at the desk level, not just at the highest echelons. Breaking down silos and educating stakeholders internally about how to engage and work with startups has to be a focus.
It’s important that all stakeholders involved understand that engaging with a startup offers the company a chance to work with new and exciting technology, but that the engagement also brings its own suite of challenges. Corporations need to understand and prepare for what will be required to scale and need to be able to keep the project within scope.
Be Honest, Be Brutal
The most important element for a strong partnership is communicating often and clearly with the startup. Be honest, be brutal: it’s better than a no after a slew of calls and meetings filled with nodding faces.
As with all partnerships, success depends on both parties and, just as corporations must be transparent about their needs, startups need to be upfront about their needs as well. It’s essential that startups offer corporations a well articulated, relevant, and easily understood value propositions.
Push Us To Be Better
It’s key that startups take the time to understand the corporation they’re partnering with, from the corporate hierarchy to the infrastructure. Startups should have a plan for what a full implementation should look like and the resources required. But most importantly, push the corporations. Push us to be better, to approach problems creatively and challenge our preconceived notions.
As a Techstars Network Engagement Partner, we’ve not only engaged with Techstars accelerators around the world that align with our innovation and strategic priorities as a way to deal source, we’ve also helped startups in adjacent verticals figure out how to better approach the insurance space and better navigate a massive multinational enterprise. Being a part of the Techstars network has also given us access to the Techstars Partner community, where we have built peer relationships and shared best practices.
Our job at QBE Ventures is as much to prepare the business to be the partner of choice as it is to help our startup partners prepare to be the partner of choice for other corporations. Our partnership with Techstars as a Network Engagement Partner is one of the many steps we’ve taken to achieve that goal.
Research shows corporations create coherent partnering and investing strategies with startups
BOSTON & BOULDER, CO – Innovation Leader today released a new survey sponsored by Techstars, the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed, which shares how executives at large corporations are approaching engagements with startups and other disruptors to fuel corporate growth.
The survey, Startup Engagement: Best Practices for Large Organizations combined quantitative data from 115 large organizations with 15 qualitative interviews to reveal ways that corporations currently engage with startups, and sheds light on best practices for companies looking to leverage startups to drive internal innovation.
While some startups are determined to go it alone, motivated by the disruption of established industries, others are eager to partner with large organizations for mentorship and advice, joint product development, access to markets, funding, and the potential of a large equity event in the form of an acquisition.
Survey research found that large corporations range in their experience and willingness to work with startup entities. Of the five percent of corporations with the highest level of experience with startup engagement, research found that providing mentorship, sponsorship and participation was at a much higher rate (88 percent) than corporations with less experience (57 percent). More experienced corporations are also more likely to partner with startups to co-develop new products (79 percent) than corporations with fewer startup touch-points (51 percent). More experienced companies are also more likely to participate in university startup programs (85 percent) when compared to less experienced corporations (45 percent).
But many companies have not put a game plan in place to connect to their startup ecosystems. In fact, the survey found that 19 percent of corporates said they haven’t yet established goals for startup engagement; 47 percent haven’t defined a clear “point of contact” internally who will be responsible for startup interactions; and 38 percent of corporates don’t yet have metrics in place to track the impact of their startup engagement activities.
“Our experience tells us that it’s not a question of if this disruption will occur, but when,” says David Brown, founder and co-CEO of Techstars. “We saw a way to turn this situation into a win-win. For a large corporation, the best path to true innovation—cultural change as well as problem-solving and avoiding disruption—is to partner with startups. We realized that if we could bring together the corporations that were the most willing to innovate with the top technology startups that have the deepest domain expertise, both would benefit.”
The research suggests that large corporations with the most startup interaction are more willing to work with startups across every category of engagement, including corporate VC investment, running a startup-focused technology accelerator, acquiring startup technology, becoming an early customer of startup products and services or reselling their technology to their customers. Willingness to work alongside startups creates mutually beneficial circumstances for both the startup and the corporation.
The research also shows that more experienced companies were similar in their approach to their goals for working alongside startups. All companies said the top goal was running pilot tests or proof-of-concept tests for new ideas, followed by “driving internal transformation” by using startup tools and methodologies, and to better understanding customer or tech trends. Just 29 percent said they were hunting for potential acquisitions.
“We met over the last four years with 1,500-plus startup founders around the world and asked them what would make a great corporate startup partnership. Everything we designed kept their input in mind,” says Danielle Cohn, Executive Director for Entrepreneurial Engagement, Comcast NBCUniversal and one of the interviewees featured in the Innovation Leader report. “At the conclusion of our first accelerator class, seven of the 10 companies were doing some form of a partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal businesses, including two that have entered into master services agreements with our company.”
In addition to the research results and interviews with corporate leaders, the Innovation Leader report includes a roadmap for corporations looking to work with startups — from establishing a strategy to identifying the people who will be involved to assessing progress. For more information, download the full report.
Techstars is the worldwide network that helps entrepreneurs succeed. Techstars founders connect with other entrepreneurs, experts, mentors, alumni, investors, community leaders, and corporations to grow their companies. Techstars operates three divisions: Techstars Startup Programs, Techstars Mentorship-Driven Accelerator Programs, and Techstars Corporate Innovation Partnerships. Techstars accelerator portfolio includes more than 1,700 companies with a market cap of $18 Billion. www.techstars.com
About Innovation Leader
Innovation Leader is a fast-growing media and events company with a laser focus on helping the world’s largest companies build their competitive advantage. Since 2013, Innovation Leader has built the largest network of corporate innovation, strategy, and R&D executives in both public and private companies, helping these executives to strengthen their innovation programs; connect with useful resources, solutions, and vendors; and engage with peers inside innovative labs and workplaces around the globe. For more information about Innovation Leader membership and events, visit www.innovationleader.com or follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Today, global energy corporation Equinor and startup Crux OCM are working together to test Crux OCM’s software, which functions as an “autopilot” for oil and gas control room operators. It’s early days yet, but if the Crux OCM solution works and scales, it will lead to efficiencies, cost savings, and new revenue opportunities for Equinor.
This sounds like a pipe dream: a startup and a large corporation partnering to give the startup a first user to test their idea and the corporation the kind of solution that would have taken years to develop internally.
In reality, this kind of partnership can be a rapid win-win, but only if approached the right way. Startups and large corporations think and work incredibly differently—and too often, great ideas get lost in translation. The first hurdle is identifying startup founders with deep domain knowledge who are at the top of their game.
Identifying the Stellar Startups
“We did not really know what we were getting into,” said Jens Festervoll, corporate liaison for the Techstars Energy Accelerator in Partnership with Equinor. “Equinor is a global energy company and wanted to partner with an accelerator company that had a reach into global startup ecosystems and a reputation for attracting top talent.” They were hoping to identify and work with truly stellar startups with products or solutions that could make a real difference to Equinor, and to inject a dose of startup culture into the company—but they also knew that working with startups would bring special challenges for a large corporation like Equinor. And so an accelerator was born.
From the moment she heard about the Techstars Energy Accelerator in Partnership with Equinor, Crux OCM founder Vicki Knott knew she wanted in. “The same day applications opened, the founder of Crux OCM hunted me down,” said Audun Abelsnes, managing director of the program. “Vicki’s real obsession for a niche problem like increasing the volumetric throughput of pipelines appealed to me. Techstars backs exceptional founders, and I immediately felt there was something special about Vicki.” Crux OCM indeed proved to be an exceptional startup, with a great team that was ready to #domorefaster.
The Startup Culture Injection
But Vicki did have some hesitations: “We were worried that the experience would be the same as all of our interactions with large corporations up to that point—that progress would be so slow we would not be able to determine and secure a trial opportunity within the three months of the accelerator.”
It’s true that corporations and startups work at different speeds, and this can cause friction. “The speed and sense of urgency is just totally different between a energy major like Equinor and any startup,” said Audun. Fortunately, Audun is also positioned to help ease this tension. “I have unique access to senior management in Equinor that can help and push the needle forward if necessary.” He gave Equinor the tools and methodologies to build trust with the startups in the program, creating strong channels of communication and overcoming cultural barriers.
For Equinor’s part, Jens reflected that he and his colleagues “appreciated the speed at which these startups expect things to happen, and the fact that we do not work that quickly.” But the Equinor people who mentored the startups in this program—giving their time and attention on a regular basis, week after week—found that they were changed by the experience. Nearly 80% of these mentors said that they would work differently in the future, with more agility. That taste of startup culture let them see ways to bring elements of it into their working lives, making them both more efficient and more engaged.
“We need this cultural change,” said Jens.
The Measurable Power of Mentorship
Techstars not only brought startup speed to Equinor—mentors also got first hand experience with the Techstars value Give First. This means helping others whenever possible, without expectation of a transactional return. It is the essence of mentoring. “The Equinor staff was so welcoming and open to the Techstars companies,” Vicki said. “All individuals in the organization did their very best to help us and fully embraced the Techstars #GiveFirst mantra.”
Going into the program, Crux OCM saw their technology as a solution for oil pipelines. Equinor mentors like Jofrid Klokkehaug, VP of operations and maintenance, and Ulrik Olbjørn, the digital lead for Equinor onshore, helped Vicki realize that she could expand this vision. The software was just as applicable to the 5000 miles (8000 km) of integrated gas pipelines and facilities on the Norwegian continental shelf. Thanks to this insight, Crux OCM had a great new market to attack—and Equnior had a potential solution to a problem.
That’s the beauty of Give First—you always do get something back. You just don’t know what or when it will be. In this case, the benefits for Equnior came quickly: “Crux OCM will test their solution on a small Unit at our Snøhvit LNG facility as a first user,” said Jens. “If the tech works, then there is an opportunity to scale to more complex systems, adding more value.”
A Win-Win Times Six
With this accelerator, the company was looking to “improve Equinor’s ability to innovate and drive change,” said Jens. Less than a year after the first class of the program, Equinor is seeing gratifying results.
They’ve experienced the high quality of Techstars startups, overcome cultural barriers that made trust and communication difficult, and infused some of that energizing startup culture into their corporate culture—and these are just the intangible successes. Crux OCM is one of six startups from the program that are exploring potential solutions with Equinor. That’s a win-win times six—and a very measurable, and speedy, path to creating value.
By Chris Pearson, Manager, Partnerships | IBM Digital Business Group
I’ve spent my fair share of time mentoring startups, and when we meet for the first time, I always begin by asking the founders a seemingly simple question: “Why are you doing this?” Answers to this question come in different forms, typically to the tune of “We’ve noticed a gap in ‘x’ market that we can expose,” or “We have an innovative product that can revolutionize the way ‘y’ business is done,” and of course the ever so original “We’re the Uber for ‘z.’” It’s always great to get a picture of the product these founders are developing and to witness their excitement about the potential impact it can make, but none of those really answer the question I’ve asked. They’re all telling me the what and how but not necessarily the why. The reason I specifically ask “Why?” is that this question requires the founders to defines their purpose—and I believe that understanding your purpose is the foundation on which companies can truly thrive.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” These wise words, written over a century ago by Friedrich Nietzsche, are just as true today as they were then. Circumstances change, markets shift, new innovations arise, all of which are uncontrollable factors that can impact what and how, but if you have firmly established your why, there will be very little you cannot overcome.
Determine Your “Why”
Simple questions don’t always yield simple answers. The purpose behind our actions, let alone our business, isn’t necessarily easy to define and oftentimes takes a bit of digging, but once you have it, the decision making process becomes significantly easier across the board. As a founder, you have to account for hundreds of decisions on a daily basis, each of which can potentially take you any one of a hundred directions. The benefit to understanding your purpose is that it acts as a compass in your decision making. Whatever answer or course of action aligns most closely with the central purpose you’ve identified is the decision you make, period.
For me personally, I decided years ago that my purpose was to help foster growth across the startup ecosystem. I’m not a founder myself, but I have recognized a pattern across history: civilizations tend to thrive—and reach their pinnacle—when they are focused on innovation. Creating solutions that make life and business more efficient and effective is a central theme in growing societies, and I believe that is just as true today as it’s ever been.
I developed this mission shortly after joining 500 Startups in a business development role after many years in corporate finance, and it was this idea that opened my eyes to a missing component in the startup ecosystem. I realized that enterprise companies play a critical role in the development and growth of startups and that the development of startups plays into the long-term success of enterprise companies. For the sake of time, I won’t dive deeply into the subject. Here is a reason so few large corporate entities survive, or at least maintain, a high level of success beyond three generations—and it revolves around their inability to accept and buy-in to innovation.
Partners for Innovation
It was this revelation that led me to take a role at SoftLayer, which ultimately fully migrated into IBM, where I’ve worked to become a key figure in the development and execution of our startup program Startup With IBM. Our objective is to manage a program that not only provides startups access to our technology through credits and more importantly positions those companies that work with us to reach our global network of clients and partners in order to help them find customers and generate revenue. We want to leverage the strength of what IBM is today to create meaningful value for the growth and development of these startups who will ultimately determine what IBM becomes in the future. If we can serve these startups well, helping them grow and scale on our cloud, as more than just as technology providers but also as a business partner, then we have the opportunity to become a core piece in the success of the next generation of these companies. By design, our program is only successful when startups are successful first. The goal is to create a structure that serves and supports founders by leveraging IBM’s core competencies to give them the tools and resources they need to do what they do best: innovate.
It’s yet to be seen whether or not our complete vision will come to fruition in the end. What we do know is the why behind what we’re doing, and every decision we make for this program will be to serve that ultimate purpose as we go forward.
Learn more about how Techstars partners with corporations to promote innovation—within corporations and for startups.