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.
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.
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. techstarsblog.wpengine.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.