Building an Effective Corporate Incubator / Accelerator: A New Approach

What steps can you take to create a strong incubator?


It seems that every time I chat with corporate innovation leaders these days they talk to their desire and/or plans to build a corporate incubator/accelerator. And sure, I understand why they are going down this path. These efforts are fun! Who doesn’t love a beanbag?

While incubators and accelerators have differences, they are similar concepts and will be referenced interchangeably within this document. The goal of these efforts is to give selected ideas an environment with resources, attention, tools and structure that will help them thrive and grow into successful businesses, products or services.

Well that is the politically correct version.

In reality, and at the risk of offending people (let me know if you don’t agree), these efforts are often an admission that the corporate culture is so toxic to new thinking that they need to be separated, often physically, from the rest of the organization. The goal is to give these ideas a fighting chance before they are thrown out to the pack of wolves beyond the beanbag lined gates.

So while I am a fan of this concept, the ideas they produce often fail when released from the confines of the incubator, for the following reasons:

  • Planning – The ideas have not had sufficient, stress-tested post-incubator planning built into their efforts.
  • Business Unit support – The Business Units that are expected to support the new ideas don’t feel a sense of ownership, or fail to see the value in providing support.
  • Endurance – Incubator participants often start with a sense of excitement, and large career stakes in the development of an idea, but a range of factors associated with the incubator sap their enthusiasm over time.
  • Cultural separation – These incubators, especially when designed as physical spaces, intentionally seek out a new and distinct culture that is separated from the rest of the organization. Unfortunately, this can create perceptions of “softness” or “fluffiness” from more traditionally minded Business Unit leaders.

There are many steps that an organization can take to improve the chance of success for ideas and new businesses being worked on within an incubator. However, for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the value that employee networks can provide. The reason for this is that much of the recent writing around these efforts ignores the points of connection back into the business, which I believe are really essential to success.

So what are some examples where employee innovation networks (see my previous article to learn more) can support incubators and the ideas that they are focused on?

Front-end support

There are a range of ways that these networks can support the early stages of idea development, in the context of an incubator:

  • Network members can help create, define and select the ideas that initially enter the incubator. This can happen through a traditional crowdsourced, challenge-based approach, or on a more tightly focused effort such as action learning teams.
  • An even more intense approach is to ensure that only ideas generated by network members can be accepted into an incubator. In this context, network members can be seen as a pool of resources to be pulled into the incubator to own and develop ideas.

Back-end support

Within the incubator, network members can assist at various points of an idea’s development.

  • Subject matter experts (SMEs) within a network can be brought in for short-term assignments to help ideas as required.
  • At a crowdsourcing level, network members can have input to ideas, at certain key points of development. For example, a series of mini-challenges or questions can be posed to network members to gather their thoughts and successfully guide the development of the idea.
  • Senior network members can also act as mentors to help an idea’s owner successfully navigate the organization, both during and after their time in the incubator.

The benefits to these efforts are that they extend the incubator experience to a broader range of employees, and limit the full-time employee resources allocated directly to the incubator.

Further, the interaction and support of network members with the development of new ideas is especially powerful when formalized procedures are put in place by HR teams. I have written in the past about the value of partnership between Innovation Programs and HR groups as a way to further leverage business impact.

Idea launch support

Once an idea is ready to be launched back into the organization, network members can be actively engaged to champion the idea through this transition. As part of this effort, members can be educated around the idea and its benefits.

At a more formalized level, a subset of individuals can be given specific roles and tasks needed to support these ideas. These roles can even be included within an individual’s annual goals or career development planning efforts.

Strategic support

Networks can take a range of different formats and approaches. What I believe is essential to an incubator’s success is to build a senior leadership incubator steering committee or network. These individuals need to understand the ideas that are in development, both at an individual and pipeline level. They need to be aware of rollout timelines and feel a level of responsibility for success. As a network they need to act as visible and active sponsors of the incubator and ideas being generated out of it.

So, yes, I do love a beanbag, but I see many incubators being set up without the necessary channels that connect back into the business units, where the real political value in an organization traditionally sits. Ultimately, this is also where new ideas are made or broken, and planning effectively around this transition is essential to the success of any new, innovative idea.

Let me know if you would like to discuss the concepts outlined within this article (or any of my previous articles)?

This article was previously published at Innovation Management.


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