How partnerships are driving the innovation economy

Nils Westerlund of Sweden, Sofia Braendstroem of Sweden, Alessandro Contini of Italy  and Emma Rose of Britain (R-L) of the HowDo start-up attend a production meeting at their office at the Wostel co-working space in Berlin March 18, 2013. Europe must urgently tackle youth unemployment, the French, German and Italian governments said May 28, 2013, urging action to rescue an entire generation who fear they will not find jobs. Some 7.5 million Europeans aged 15-24 are neither in employment nor in education or training, according to EU data. Youth unemployment in the EU stood at 23.6 percent in January, more than twice as high as the adult rate. Picture taken March 18, 2013.   REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - BM2E9460VL301

Partnerships between large and small businesses can be good for both - but which flavour is best? Image: REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Abdullah Snobar
Executive Director, DMZ
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

There’s no doubt that we have shifted from a resource-based economy to one rooted in innovation. Companies are increasingly looking to the start-up ecosystem to remain competitive - as they should be. And it’s no longer simply about trading on start-ups’ cool factor; corporations want a deeper understanding of the culture of collaboration and partnership that drives start-ups’ success - and, in the long run, invest in and benefit from their future success.

It’s no secret that incubators and accelerators are leading this collaborative charge. In my role as executive director of the DMZ accelerator at Ryerson University in Toronto, I have seen the challenge many businesses face in trying to figure out how best to seek out and build partnerships in effective ways to deliver the best for their organization. How can they maximize the potential inherent in strong partnerships? What different models exist?

To help shed some light here, I’m going to take you on a tour of three different flavours of corporate partnership. I hope this will inspire other businesses to see how they too can create partnerships with start-ups in order to boost their growth and propel themselves forward.

The first model sees a corporation and a start-up literally move in together. Within our accelerator, we’re proud to host IBM’s only Canadian Bluemix Garage. The Bluemix Garage works by creating a bridge between the corporate scale and start-up culture, establishing a physical collaboration space within a fast-paced entrepreneurial community. This enables IBM to immerse teams in agile environments, working alongside top entrepreneurs, increasing knowledge transfer and creativity, and expanding their networks to accelerate growth.

This model works well when a company is looking to embed themselves in an accelerator environment in order to influence their own corporate culture - and it helps large businesses steer away from creating their own corporate accelerators.

Today, many ‘corporate accelerators’ have become places that generate excitement by experimenting with innovation, but which have failed in helping to scale and commercialize any start-ups. A large part of this is because many corporate accelerators are not truly unlocking their internal resources and extensive networks to solve the problems they say they care about.

So, how can corporates do better? To become a constructive part of the global innovation ecosystem, it’s necessary to build a model that can help start-ups leverage corporate assets in order to scale and grow (instead of it feeling like it’s the other way around).

The second partnership model does exactly that. A corporate partner provides human resources, expertise, global reach and funding to support a concentrated, pre-existing and focused initiative to accelerate start-ups.

This helps corporates connect with entrepreneurs, while at the same time adding value back into the community to help it grow. This way, corporates can strengthen their position in an evolving marketplace, while start-ups get the chance to pilot their technology with a well-known corporate. It’s a win-win.

The last model, which is the simplest and most conventional model is the ‘in-residence’ partnership. A great example of this is Goodmans LLP, which signed up to provide free legal counsel to our start-ups. The cost of legal advice is something that can be a real burden for entrepreneurs launching a business. Goodmans are mentoring founders and connecting with investors, all of which puts their finger firmly on the pulse of what’s next.

It’s time for corporates to stop working in silos. There are a number of great incubators and accelerators that are driving the innovation economy - and so instead of putting resources towards something new, it’s time to find ways to support what is already working within the current ecosystem that can also support your end goal.

Put simply, to innovate in today’s economy, partnerships between companies and accelerators can become our greatest opportunity. And while there is no one-size-fits-all approach, taken together it is apparent that public and private partnerships aren’t simply the fuel for innovation; they’re an economic and creative engine with an infinite amount of potential. They can help a company break from siloed thinking, re-imagine what’s possible, and innovate for future success.

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