How to Lead Corporate Innovation Through Startup Partnerships

About four years ago, Cheryl Cheng, an operating partner at Blue Run Ventures and co-founder at BrandGarage, started seeing the Fortune 500 come to Silicon Valley to do their technology shopping. Today, the Bay Area is home to corporate labs, accelerators, and venture arms that actively engage with the startup community. Many brands are seeking relationships with technology innovators that extend beyond the one-day showcase.

As a corporate executive who is looking to champion new technology from within your company, how do you sell new technology up the chain and minimize risk? Labs and accelerator programs draw substantial resources and have seen mixed results in the corporate innovation community.

One brand, Sears, has taken a leaner approach through “test and learn”:

  1. Identify what the corporate brand is looking to accomplish from a business perspective.
  2. Curate technology partners (startups) that are building innovations around these business goals and opportunities (from step 1).
  3. Co-Innovate with startups (from step 2) in a pilot program (limited to a singular campaign, select stores, customer group, etc.) to test the technology innovation at the brand level.
  4. Evaluate pilot program results (from step 3) and move forward.

For two summers, BrandGarage has worked with Sears to produce Startup Challenges in America’s two biggest tech hubs: San Francisco and New York City. Each Challenge acts as a public facing curation event; startups are invited to participate by integrating the Sears API into their product and then pitch to show how the integration solves one of Sears’ four business problems. The winners of each Challenge have gone on to work with Sears in a pilot program. The results? Sears has increased its revenue, lowered costs, and improved customer satisfaction.

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