How to Stop Big Companies from Devouring Innovators

May 12, 2014

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Size is not an excuse for complacency, says Serge de Gheldere, founder and CEO of the environmental management consultancy Futureproofed. Big companies can innovate in the face of global challenges like climate change and use them as opportunities for growth. But how?

Beth Comstock, GE chief marketing officer, recently moderated the first “Illuminated Minds” roundtable discussion that wrestled with the topic.

Her guests included de Gheldere, serial entrepreneur Claude Grunitzky, founder of The Change Initiative Gundeep Singh, founder of Scale This Shona Seifert, and Agostino Renna, president and CEO of GE Lighting for EMEA. The group debated the benefits of innovative partnerships and ecosystems, big data, “moonshots" and "intrapreneurship."

Early on, Seifert pointed out that startups played a “vital role because they are out there putting a spotlight on opportunities that perhaps the big companies haven’t even noticed yet.” She said that large companies set up their research “skunkworks,” but many of them “get eaten by the mothership. There is some sort of organ rejection,” she said.

The panelists said corporations must fight this immune reaction and seek, nurture and invest in intrapreneurs, creative souls already on their payrolls. Finding those people, forming collaborations and reorienting the company around their innovations can help them achieve speed and scale.

Seifert pointed to Apple as an example. “[They’ve] proven that you can behave like a startup,” she said. “They’ve always been David in every industry they’ve entered against the Goliaths.”

Grunitzky proposed to stimulate innovation at big corporations with an ecosystem of hundreds “empowered and still independent” businesses. He said that this partnership model could be the future, versus acquisitions and “having them directly on the balance sheet.”

Seifert agreed and said that we needed to replace old business models focused primarily on simple financial transactions between a handful of players. She said the old models were “defunct” in new ecosystems in which there were “many frenemies” and where everyone must get much better at contributing and consuming data, and understand what their roles are and how to monetize them.

The debate often turned to data and de Gheldere pointed out that data was not the same as insight. He said that “we may be submerged in information,” but that does not mean “that the action that derives from it is clear cut.”

GE’s Renna and others agreed that companies must measure innovation through new metrics, focus outcomes and see results through their costumers’ eyes. “Customers aren’t looking for sustainability, they are not even sure what it is,” Seifert said. “It needs to be translated into benefits.”

She said that we must explain concepts like sustainability “in terms that people care about, that are meaningful to them so that they can opt into that movement.” 

See more of the Illuminated Minds discussion here.

Image credit: Nevit Dilmen