From Smarter Programs to Engaging Competition: New Best Practices in Corporate Innovation

By February 27, 2019April 16th, 2019No Comments
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By Natalia Gricovkanics and Ruby Wallen, Pioneers Discover

In the space of a few short years, most corporates have moved from having very limited collaboration programs to a strong culture of working with startups. Now innovation managers are starting to drive a third-wave shift, in which collaboration programs have more focused structures and target clear outcomes. And, as the boundaries between industries and markets blur, companies are also recognizing the value of working with their peers.

Here we examine three of these emerging trends in how corporates are achieving the fastest, best innovation results they can.

Focused, Customized Startup Programs

With the development and maturing of the startup ecosystem, entrepreneurs are selecting partnership opportunities and formats corporate collaboration formats with more care and awareness than ever before. At the same time, collaboration with startups has become a strategic imperative for the companies with the goal to deeply integrate startups solutions into current or future company products and services.

Looking at the examples of innovation activities of some of the big players, we’re seeing signs of a move from pre-defined innovation programs (sometimes these were actually focused more on branding or hiring than solutions!) to an ongoing collaboration approach with the emphasis on qualitative co-creation and co-development. Creators Expedition, a startup initiative of AVL List, the world’s leading independent engineering company for powertrain systems, is running a program tailor-made for each startup. The idea is to find the best approach to running a successful PoC with individual startups and scale the solution in the fastest time possible.

Airbus BizLab, the global aerospace accelerator for startups and Airbus intrapreneurs, is another example of a successful program focusing on the close collaboration with startups that integrates many of them into the Airbus business within six months. These examples show how collaboration to moved towards a focus on achieving tangible results, which not only serve the companies’ core competencies but also speed up transformational changes.

Choosing with Care: More Resources for Startup Selection

With the market becoming more and more saturated with Corporate-Startup Collaboration opportunities in varied formats – and also with good startups – there’s a trend towards more time, effort and resources being invested by both sides in verifying whether there is a match. It invariably makes sense to do so before entering into a more extensive partnership or program.

A best practice of this activity can be seen by Merck. Startups identified as strong candidates for its accelerator program are flown in (at Merck’s expense) from around the world for Selection Days. The two-day program is aimed at validating the startups as a fit for Merck, and vice versa. The selection days include an ‘office hours’ approach in which internal experts are invited to meet the startups to determine the technical feasibility of a partnership.

Vattenfall is another example of best practice in the field – within the framework of their open innovation platform Green:field. After a rigorous internal process to find the top innovation fields to pursue, the top startups working on the selected topics are identified and invited to meet Vattenfall innovation team and topic experts at a Co-Creation Day. During the day, startups and internal experts meet for in-depth discussion about what a PoC could look like, what resource would be involved and what the outcome could be.

This rising trend is another way in which corporate-startup collaboration is moving from high-level, general programs towards a more hands-on approach and tangible results.

From Competition To Collaboration: Corporates Working Together

With emerging disruptive technologies affecting existing business models, even the most stable and advanced companies are struggling to follow trends and keep their business at the forefront of the market. Even the traditional definition of a company’s ‘market’ is getting reshaped. At the same time, startups are also moving their focus from the use cases for a single industry to providing solutions which serve a diversity of industries and cross-sector markets.

These developments, along with the changes in global macrotrends, bring us to the point where industry boundaries are blurring and certain technologies are becoming omnipresent among all industries. Cross-industry collaboration is thus an increasingly important part of the innovation process, and for the development of new products and services.

By working together on certain topics (e.g. Smart City, Industry 4.0, Retail) large corporates have a great opportunity to capture the growth and unlock innovation on the faster pace and bigger scope. Therefore, a growing number of companies are engaging in the collaboration programs focused around a specific technology or topic with the goal to enhance innovation potential and work with startups in a more efficient manner.

Our increasingly popular Industry 4.0 Hackathon in Linz is one example of this approach. At the third edition late in 2018, corporates KEBA, TGW Logistics Group, Voestalpine and Miba came together not only to issue startup challenges, but also to openly engage each other as well as all the participating startups and their technology.


After some wild early days in which everyone was learning as they went along, the Corporate-Startup Collaboration landscape is maturing nicely, with new best practices emerging. The industry has understood what is important for success and large companies are taking innovation more seriously. Consequently we’re seeing them take a more practical, result-oriented approach to building their programs. In addition, the benefits of open innovation and cross-industry corporate collaboration are beginning to be understood, and adoption of this approach is spreading.

Need a hand developing your corporate innovation program? Want help finding the very best startups for your needs? Then contact Pioneers Discover on