Building An Effective Collaboration Between Startups And Corporates

Speaker Snapshot: James Millar, Director of Partnerships at MassChallenge UK


Ahead of his presentation at  the Chief Innovation Officer Summit in London this October 19-20, we spoke to James Millar, Director of Partnerships at MassChallenge UK.

James is the Director of Partnerships at MassChallenge, the most startup friendly accelerator on the planet. He works alongside some of the highest impact entrepreneurs, bridging the gap between their startups and the corporate world. He has spent over 10 years delivering transformational projects for some of the most recognized names in retail, including Amazon, Canon Europe, the Carphone Warehouse, and Waterstones. James speaks passionately about all things innovation and the changing nature of corporate businesses. He also talks a lot about cycling.

How did your career begin?

For the first 15 years of my career, I was working with some of the leading private equity-backed businesses and delivering transformational projects for some of the UK’s leading retailers including Amazon, Carphone Warehouse, and Waterstones. I first felt the excitement of being part of the London startup ecosystem whilst acting as both a judge and a mentor for the MassChallenge UK 2015 program. My enthusiasm for working within the startup world was continuing to grow, and I was soon finding myself talking all things startups on a daily basis!

Soon after this, I decided to make a career move and take up more of a leading ambassador role for MassChallenge. This role is the Director of Partnerships for the UK, working with our corporate, public, and foundation supporters.

What are the main components of a successful innovation strategy?

The easiest and the best way to build a successful innovation strategy is to interact with startups - which are the most innovative and entrepreneurial organizations out there. But it’s not just about acquisitions. The best strategies include reshaping the current organizational culture to be more innovative across teams and the organization as a whole and working towards long-term value add back into the company. Here are some key considerations take from our recent study with Imaginatik, The State of Startup/Corporate Collaboration Study 2016:

- Collaboration is a competitive advantage: With the distributed nature of knowledge, especially in high-tech & digital sectors, successful innovation strategies are increasingly determined by the ability to establish and maintain successful collaboration, rather than pursuing innovation activities in isolation.

- Win-Win partnerships: It is no longer 'us' vs. 'them' between startups and corporates. Mutually beneficial partnerships between startups and corporates to solve business specific problems quicker, or at a lower risk, or rejuvenating corporate culture by creating awareness of entrepreneurial mindset.

- Be clear what you want and how you measure success: This includes level setting about the likely speed at which you can move and how much legal documentation you will need in place. Clear strategic intent will determine not only which startups a corporation chooses to interact with, but also how they build the relationships and which vehicles, processes, and people are involved.

- The leadership of a dedicated innovation department: Corporates who had a dedicated innovation department and startup leads reported 96% success rates versus 55% of the industry as a whole. These functions provide two benefits over established roles: 1) sourcing and incubating new innovation opportunities and 2) they have the resources and latitude to fund and launch innovation, allowing them the freedom to act at speed.

Is open innovation worth the risk?

I think the right question is whether a company can afford not to practice open innovation. The average lifespan of a company listed on the S&P 500 index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, and it is estimated that by 2020, more than 75% of the S&P 500 index will be companies we have not heard of yet.

In our recent study, 82% of corporations now view interactions with startups as somewhat important to very important, and 23% said it was 'mission critical'. Innovation efforts are no longer 'nice to have' programs within corporations.

Ultimately, it is worth the effort if partnerships between corporates and startups are seen as just that - a partnership, rather than a quick one-off transaction. More often than not, there is a lot more to be learned and developed together from both sides.

How important is it to collaborate with the startup community? What are your thoughts on internal and external incubator programs?

Mission critical. With innovation being the key driver of long-term success, working with startups allows corporates to develop and test their new technologies, and service solutions with fewer costs and risk to their core operations.

Internal and external incubator or accelerator programs are effective in optimizing early stage interactions between corporates and startups. This offers corporates opportunities to explore new technologies and business models at an earlier stage. With startups, it offers more scope and engagement for an earlier understanding of the strategic fit, the most important factor in success or failure of a given startup relationship.

Whereas corporates and startups have collaborated in informal ways for many years, internal and external incubator formalized programs have distinct benefits:

- They make collaborations more efficient and cost-effective for corporations, in assisting corporations to find and attract the best startups to work with.

- Formalized programs are also more visible to the startup community, and, are, therefore, easier to engage with.

- Incubator programs also are a public commitment to supporting new innovators and sending strong signals to internal staff, as well as external customers, partners, and future employees.

- There is also a wider importance to strengthening the European innovation ecosystem. The stronger collaboration will support the stronger European tech ecosystem, where startups can transform into scale-ups, large and sustainable businesses, who become future customers or draw more resources into the ecosystem for all.

What can delegates expect from your presentation at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit?

We will provide attendees with both key findings and deeper learnings of the study, from the perspective of both, corporates and startups around the emerging 'mission critical' trend of the startup/corporate collaboration. We will also give them a better understanding of how they can find and attract the best startups to work with, and an insight into key recommendations on how the best corporates are innovating with startups.

You can hear from James and other industry leaders at the Chief Innovation Officer Summit, taking place in London this October 19-20.


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