Unlocking corporate innovation through startup alignment

Corporate innovation is high on today’s agenda. As companies seek out that ever-competitive edge, true innovation is the magic ingredient that can create authentic stand-out. Change, innovation, disruption – none of these are the natural MO for larger organisations. Infrastructures of processes and systems have been carefully constructed to support customers and employees, providing that effective, safe way to operate. End result? A rigid framework lacking the agility and flexibility of startups and younger businesses. 

Ultimately, an inability to pivot, to flex to market needs or customer trend can be a real weakness in today’s socially activated economic environment. To thrive today, independent and creative thinking are vital ingredients as is the ability to react quickly within rapidly changing markets. This means corporates need to explore new strategies to evolve. 

As a startup hub, we’re seeing more forward-thinking organisations recognising the potential to align their business with technology startups and scale-ups to do this. Unilever, Google, Microsoft and Tesco are already opening their doors – and resources – to startups. From John Lewis’ JLAB through to City law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers’ On Demand, what are the common strategies shared by game changers? 

Align with technology 

Investing in internal incubators and labs as innovation engines is a key route. This goes beyond experimentation for its own sake. It’s about developing new products, services, and ways of working to filter into the organisation’s wider culture. Over and above financial benefits, it’s the reputational advantage that enables businesses to essentially innovate their way to better marketing.

Labs and incubators create an internal hub of innovation, separate from the parent organisation. Yes, processes are necessary but these will be defined with the purpose of building Next Gen tools and services, mapping out new ways of thinking and re-instilling a more creative culture within the business; innovation must be embraced from the top, down. 

Become part of a startup community 

Full-scale lab investment isn’t a viable option for everyone but there are other ways to connect with startups. Part of our mission at ConnectTVT has been to bridge the gap between the corporate and startup worlds. Integrating with our community here, larger businesses can access exciting new startups, truly some of the most original talent in the area. Our Challenge Nights see corporates put a problem to teams of startups who develop innovative, flexible solutions, giving bigger businesses access to original, workable and creative ideas. For startups, they can build their experience and understand more about creating channels for this market alongside accessing corporate resources.

There is a huge eco-system of incredible incubators and labs out there, not to mention dynamic co-working spaces. Understand how you can help them and how creative partnerships can be forged.

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Create the unexpected with collision partnerships

This one is a cliché but so necessary. Of course playing to strengths is vital to success – the JLAB programme embodies this as start-ups lever the influence and resource of John Lewis to fast-track their products and business models. In my experience, it’s where the unexpected collide that the magic happens. My co-founder Adam Clark and I never would have dreamed of running an open data hackathon with Reading Borough Council this time last year. We’re currently running an event to encourage app developers to use RBC’s open transport data to create travel apps for people living in and around Reading. We’re seeing more exciting fashion and food brands come into GROW, our co-working accelerator hub.

Access startup thinking 

The more entrepreneurs and fast-growth scale-ups I meet, the more I see their shared trait of thinking in startup mode – always. No matter how big their businesses. To remain truly innovative, businesses need to be prepared to tap into that flexible, adaptable way of thinking. Embracing failure is part of this, making sure you test the small stuff, being prepared to launch in beta, inviting customers to add value. Most important is staying agile. Speed is key in our fast-paced markets and businesses must respond quickly to shifting demands, competitive pressures and customer expectations. 

Innovate through leadership 

Leadership teams need to be able to define what innovation means to them – how it will drive growth and meet business objectives. Articulating their innovation strategy to management and employees delivers that commitment to continuous improvement and change. Building startup partnerships into this in turn shapes a culture that encourages creative ideas, teams don’t fear failure and fosters a flow of creative ideas.

Yes, it’s an over-used term but innovation is no longer a “nice to have” – it’s an essential. However you choose to engage with an innovation partner, it’s a great way to introduce new thinking and talent into a business. Start small and build from there. This new way of working could be what ensures you become an emerging business, the one to keep a close eye on.

Louize Clarke is co-founder of ConnectTVT and GROW@Green Park.

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