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A short cut for corporates to digital innovation: start-ups

Tue, 24/04/2018 - 09:10

If there is one anathema in corporate culture, it is failure. With profit to be made and share prices to increase, failure is simply not an option. And yet, when listening to stories about success in the digital space, failure is there to put one on the right path to success. The phrase ‘Fail fast, Fail often’ is often bandied about, and innovation can be seen as a constant process of iteration, test and failure, repeating this until a well-refined service or product is on the table.

A short cut for corporates to digital innovation: start-ups

Many corporates are waking up to the uncomfortable fact that at a structural level, the type of innovation required to grow in today’s digital landscape, is out of their reach, at least when trying to come up with it internally. So what to do? 

1. The start-up solution
Corporates comfortable in the digital space – Apple, Alphabet, Facebook and Amazon – have been buying startups for years, and now companies are realising that when it comes to Blockchain, artificial intelligence and machine learning, they need to turn elsewhere. And they are. Matt Garratt, Vice President of Salesforce Ventures noted that of the roughly 1500 tech acquisitions Stateside in 2016, half of them were bought by non-tech companies, showing that buying a start-up is a quick way to acquire new technologies, skills or patents.

But purchasing a company with a fully developed product can be an expensive and often risky play. Instead, we are beginning to see a trend where corporates are framing agile startups as solution providers, offering them seed funding to come up with answers to digital headaches.

In the US, defence contractor Lockheed Martin has turned its investment strategy around, focusing on young startups instead of more mature companies. In the region of $20 million was ploughed into startups in 2017, helping Lockheed Martin to get a slice of the pie in fast-moving spaces such as cybersecurity, autonomous vehicles and nanotechnology.

2. Outsourcing the problem
For corporates turning to start-ups, there are two benefits. Firstly, by doing so companies are casting their net a bit wider, with not only more eyeballs on the problems but, importantly, without the restraints of the corporate boardroom. There is more out-of-the-box thinking involved, no internal politics to worry about and far less of a threat of somebody’s career being jeopardised.

Secondly, if a start-up comes up with a solution, investing in the fledgling company can be cheaper than purchasing one with an established solution. If a buy-out is on the cards, it is less risky too since the due diligence process has been worked through and cultural challenges have been ironed out.

But not all start-ups actually want a buy-out. Some rather prefer access to market and skills transfer, especially around the commercial side of business. Yes, they do need investment, so companies can provide them with a proof of concept to take their idea forward, or potentially a more structured form of investment in their business. 

3. Cape Town: the start-up hub of Africa
Locally, Cape Town can be seen as the tech start-up hub of Africa, and is certainly a good place for corporates to start sniffing around for that digital innovation golden ticket. Events such as last year’s AfricArena conference proved that Cape Town can be a fruitful hunting ground. 80 start-ups from across Africa attended the inaugural event, and were tasked to find solutions to problems provided by corporates beforehand. Air France, for example, was looking for innovative mobile solutions, the City of Cape Town wanted to see how technology can be used to improve the tourism industry, while RCS asked for a loyalty programme to match a new credit programme.

By all accounts the event was a major success, connecting start-ups with corporates and investors, both attending the event and dialling in. The winner of Air France’s challenge, mobile payment solution provider WeCashUp, received multiple offers of investment and the project has moved on to the proof-of-concept phase.

4. The start-up lifeboat
Many companies need to face up to the fact that the current corporate structure they are working within does not allow for the type of innovation required to adapt to, never mind thrive, in a digital world. South African companies were perhaps sheltered from the digital tsunami that has eviscerated the analogue business world, but the wave has hit our shores. If it is innovation that is needed, it is time to turn to agile startups, far better adapted to a sink-or-swim digital environment, to come up with the solutions.

*This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur Mag