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  • Writer's pictureNick Turner

Corporate accelerators - just "innovation theatre"?

So suggested serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, at the Imperial College Business School inaugural symposium on corporate and industrial accelerators. Hosted in London earlier this month, this day-long event brought together corporate practitioners, consultants and academics to discuss corporate innovation models, best practice and lessons learnt from the field.

A wealth of global blue chip companies were represented, including Airbus, EDF, IBM, P&G, Rolls Royce, Shell, Swisscom and Unilever. A combination of Imperial's business and design engineering school academics led the very stimulating discussions, exploring new innovation models and probing for the creation of transformative value. Despite a number of engaging conversations and presentations, at the end of the day, it seemed to me that both were a little thin on the ground.

Founder of the lean start-up movement, Steve Blank, appearing via Skype, live from the West Coast, seemed to summarise this sentiment. "Corporate accelerators and venturing", he suggested, "bring people together, they have fun, put on a good show, but nothing much changes. That's why I call it innovation theatre". This view was in some ways supported by renowned corporate innovation expert and author Dan Toma, who noted that 65% of corporate accelerators deliver an ROI between 0 and 1%.

An overly harsh or perhaps cynical view one might argue, but maybe there is another way to assess the benefit of corporate accelerators. We heard from a number of practitioners about how their innovation programmes engaged and excited their employees. At a time when attracting, motivating and retaining high quality talent is such a challenge, this is not a meaningless outcome.

The academics went on to help us define the meaning of innovation in this context, namely: "The discovery of new customers for new propositions". They also laid out the theory of corporate accelerators, detailing a number of potential roles they can play for large established organisations, including:

  1. Reducing uncertainty

  2. Providing a pathway for "intrapreneurs"

  3. The ability to innovate around the core ("proximal bets")

  4. The identification of new markets ("distant bets")

Practitioners also shared some of their own insights into what made their various programmes more successful:

  1. The importance of acting as "an enabler" for new ideas. Don't judge too soon. Early on, it is very hard to assess the likely success of a new innovation; the least likely to be able to do so are senior management of the parent company. This led to one organisation banning the concept of pitching, "especially as there is a bias towards Americans who are better at BS!"

  2. "People over ideas and talent over tools."

  3. Secure strong C-level support, ensuring access to talent, time and financial resources.

  4. External collaboration and co-creation with others can be very powerful

  5. Just challenging the core business model of the parent company creates value in itself

  6. True entrepreneurs are "MAD" - mission addicted deviants - handle with care!

Inevitably perhaps, much of the discussion during the day focused on the challenges that corporates face in generating genuine innovation internally. There was wide recognition that there is a fundamental incompatibility between corporate and start-up culture – it is practically impossible for the two to co-exist inside the same organisation. Therefore, how you structure an accelerator, where it sits relative to the parent company, will often determine the level of success achieved.

Others focused on the more operational challenges, from setting the right mandate, securing funding, to what to do with their people after their involvement in the accelerator experience. Many mentioned the challenge of "state of the ark" vs. "state of the art", with one practitioner noting "we are rarely short of IP or technology, but we tend to be very short on new business models".

Towards the end of the day, as the search for hard evidence of transformational change and significant new value created by corporate accelerators seemed hard to find, Nick Gregg of leading venture builder Blenheim Chalcot observed, "If you really want to innovate and create new value, it is best to partner externally."

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