How to Set Up a Corporate Innovation Outpost That Works

This is the second in a series about the changing models of corporate innovation co-authored with Evangelos Simoudis. Evangelos and I are working on what we hope will become a book about the new model for corporate entrepreneurship. Read part one on the Evolution of Corporate R&D.

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Innovation and R&D Outposts
For decades large companies have set up R&D labs outside their corporate headquarters, often in foreign countries, in spite of having a large home market with lots local R&D talent. IBM’s research center in Zurich, GM’s research center in Israel, Toyota in the U.S are examples.

These remote R&D labs offered companies four benefits.

  • They enabled companies to comply with local government laws – for example to allow foreign subsidiaries to transfer manufacturing technology from the U.S. parent company while providing technical services for foreign customers
  • They improved their penetration of local and regional markets by adapting their products to the country or region
  • They helped to globalize their innovation cycle and tap foreign expertise and resources
  • They let companies develop products to launch in world markets simultaneously

Other companies operating in small markets with little R&D resources in their home country (ABB, Novartis and Hoffmann-La Roche in Switzerland, Philips in the Netherlands and Ericsson in Sweden) pursued R&D outside their home country by necessity.

Internationalization of R&D

source: Market versus technology drive in R&D internationalization: M von Zedtwitz, Oliver Gassmann

Innovation Outposts Are Moving To Innovation Clusters
Today, large companies are taking on a decidedly 21st-century twist. They are putting Innovation Outposts into Innovation Clusters -in particular Silicon Valley – to tap into the clusters’ innovation ecosystems.

(An Innovation Cluster is a concentration of interconnected companies that both compete and collaborate. Silicon Valley, Herzliya in Israel, Zhongguancun for software and Shenzen for hardware in China are examples of technology clusters, but so was Detroit for cars, Hollywood for movies, Milan for fashion.)

In the last five years, hundreds of large companies have established Innovation Outposts (and here) in Silicon Valley. The charter of these Innovation Outposts is to monitor Silicon Valley for new innovative technologies and/or companies (as emerging threats or potential tools for disruption) and then to take advantage of these innovations by creating new products or investing in startups.

While that’s the theory, the reality is that to date, most of these Innovation Outposts are at best another form of innovation theater – they make a large company feel like they’re innovating, but very few of these outposts change a company’s product direction and fewer impact their bottom line.

Companies who want their investments in Silicon Valley to be more than just press releases need to think through an end-to-end corporate outpost strategy.

This series of posts offers companies the tools to develop an Innovation Outpost strategy:

  • Determining whether a Corporate Innovation Outpost is necessary
  • Planning how to establish an Innovation Outpost
  • Deciding how to expand the Outpost

Sense and Respond

The first objective of an Innovation Outpost is to sense, i.e., look for or monitor the development of potential innovations that:

  1. Can become threats that could lead to the disruption of the corporate parent. For example, American Express’s Silicon Valley Innovation Outpost is monitoring innovations in financial technologies that are created by companies such as Square. Evangelos and I are in the process of developing a tool for diagnosing corporate disruption through innovations pursued by startups.
  1. Would allow the corporation itself to be disruptive by entering adjacent markets to the ones it currently serves or creating and introducing novel and disruptive offerings for new markets. For example, USAA is looking for software innovations that will enable it to introduce Usage-Based Insurance products to disrupt the car insurance market.

The second objective of the corporate Innovation Outpost is to respond to identified threats and potential opportunities. Companies tend to set up their outposts to respond in one of five ways:

  1. Invent: They establish project-specific advanced development efforts like Delphi Automotive’s autonomous car navigation project or broader Horizon 3 basic research efforts that take advantage of, or investigate, technologies and business models the innovation ecosystem is known for in order to create new products and services. For example, Verizon’s Silicon Valley R&D center focuses on big data and software technologies, as well as online advertising-based business models. Sometimes these Horizon 3 research efforts may be associated with a moonshot the corporation would like to pursue as is the case with Google (Google Car), Apple (iPhone) and IBM (Watson).
  1. Invest: They allocate a corporate venture fund that invests in startups working on technology and/or business model innovations of interest. For example, UPS recently invested in Ally Commerce in order to understand the logistics opportunities arising from manufacturers selling directly to consumers rather than through distributors.
  1. Incubate: They support the efforts of very early stage teams and companies that want to develop solutions in areas of interest–for example, Samsung’s incubator focuses on startups working on the Internet of Things—or they experiment with new corporate cultures and work environments –for example, Standard Chartered Bank’s startup studio.
  1. Acquire: Companies buy startups in order to access both the innovations the startups are developing and their employees, and in the process inhibit competitors from getting them. For example, Google acquired several of the robotics startups that had what was considered the best intellectual property.
  1. Partner: Collaborate with startups in order to develop a disruptive new solution using their innovations along with the corporations or to distribute innovative solutions the start up has developed. For example, a few years ago Mercedes partnered with Tesla in batteries for electric vehicles.

After working with over 100 companies, Evangelos and I clearly see that some of these five responses are more effective than others. Moreover, the speed of the response is as important as the ability to respond.  Corporations that establish Innovation Outposts often lose on speed, not on their ability to sense. What makes an outpost an effective contributor versus one that’s simply an expense item starts back at corporate headquarters with a company’s overall innovation strategy. So before we talk about the tactics of establishing an outpost, lets think about what types of discussions and decisions should first happen at the “C-level” before anyone leaves the building.

Lessons Learned

  • Companies are establishing Innovation Outposts in Silicon Valley
  • They do this to sense and/or respond to technology shifts
    • Sense means monitor the development of potential innovations that can become threats or would allow the corporation to be disruptive
    • Respond means, Invent, Invest, Incubate, Acquire or Partner
  • Most of these Innovation Outposts will become Innovation Theater and fail to add to the company

See Part 1: Innovation Outposts and The Evolution of Corporate R&D,  Part 2: Innovation Outposts: Going to Where the Action is, Part 3 of Innovation Outposts, Six Critical Decisions Before Establishing an Innovation Outpost and Part 4 How to Set Up a Corporate Innovation Outpost that Works

How to Avoid Innovation Theater: The Six Decisions To Make Before Establishing an Innovation Outpost

This is the third in a series about the changing models of corporate innovation co-authored with Evangelos Simoudis. Evangelos and I are working on what we hope will become a book about the new model for corporate entrepreneurship. Read part one on the Evolution of Corporate R&D and part two on Innovation Outposts in Silicon Valley. 

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Corporate Leadership’s Innovation Outpost Decision Process
Today, large companies are creating Innovation Outposts in Innovation Clusters like Silicon Valley in order to tap into the clusters’ innovation ecosystems.

These corporate Innovation Outposts monitor Silicon Valley for new innovative technologies and/or companies (as emerging threats or potential tools for disruption) and then take advantage of these innovations by creating new products or investing in startups.

Most CEOs assign the responsibility to establish and manage their innovation outposts (and the outpost’s relationships to startups) to their R&D organizations. While that avoids internal management conflict, it’s the wrong way to make an innovation outpost decision.

Instead CEOs and their exec staff should start with a high-level discussion to decide whether their companies should even establish an Innovation Outpost, whether in Silicon Valley or some other innovation ecosystem. Because this is a critical decision that requires broad management buy-in, the conversation should include senior management, particularly the Chief Digital Officer, the Chief Strategy Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, and the Head of R&D, and maybe even their board of directors.

This group needs to carefully consider six key questions to understand if and where an Innovation Outpost makes sense for their company.

1. Do we believe “startup-driven” innovation (innovation that comes from relationships with external, early-stage companies) should be part of the corporate innovation portfolio?

Including “startup-driven” in the corporate portfolio may make sense if a company:

  • Is being disrupted now, as is happening in many IT, print, retail and telecommunications corporations
  • Anticipates being disrupted in the near future, as is the case in the automotive and chemical industries
  • Cannot keep up with the pace of innovation in its industry, as is happening in the pharmaceutical, financial services and consumer packaged goods industries
  • Wants to promote intrapreneurship to extend its business model and retain creative employees like Google, Amazon, and Facebook do

2. What is the timeline to ROI and the amount of risk we are willing to assume? Will an Innovation Outpost provide results at the speed we need?

An Innovation Outpost focused on the sense and respond model (see Post) will best work for a company when:

  • A disruption has not already happened or is not imminent. In other words the disruption is expected to happen within 5+ years.
  • A disruption does not present an existential threat to the corporation, it can be addressed with a relatively modest investment required to establish and expand an outpost, rather than the large investments required for corporate moonshots, e.g., IBM’s Watson. (We’ll cover “corporate moonshots” in a subsequent post.)
  • Startups are developing IP relevant to the disruption.

Acquiring a growth-stage private startup can provide a faster ROI at lower risk than the acquisition of an early-stage startup. For example, Google’s acquisition of Nest (which had customers, revenue and a distribution channel) allowed it to enter the connected home market immediately. In contrast, Facebook’s acquisition of the virtual reality hardware company Oculus still requires significant product development, identification of a viable business model – and the target market and revenue may never materialize.

If the innovation threats the company faces do not match these, the corporation may need a different approach to addressing the disruption such as making a large scale acquisition, e.g., VMWare’s acquisition of Nicira, merger, or outright selling itself, e.g., EMC’s sale to Dell.

3. What would be the charter for our Innovation Outpost?

Senior managers should define the 1-2 big strategic problems that can be addressed through a day-to-day presence in the innovation ecosystem. These challenges may be either strategic or tactical. For example, one of Verizon’s strategic innovation goals for its Silicon Valley organization is to create disruptive solutions (technologies and business models) to monetize the digital media accessed by its subscribers on their mobile devices.

In the process of defining the challenges and goals for an Innovation Outpost, a company must understand why these can be addressed in a particular innovation ecosystem. They may require the utilization of technologies that are prevalent in the ecosystem, (big data or 3D printing) or specialized business models, (on-demand services) or specific innovation practices (design thinking and lean startup) or the development of a particular type of partner ecosystem (IBM’s Watson partner ecosystem.)

Identifying these strategic problems enables the corporation to decide on the location of the Innovation Outpost, define success, and the innovation KPIs that will be used to measure progress.

4.  How quickly can we get out of the building to explore and validate the ecosystem?  

Before committing to a particular innovation ecosystem, the CEO and exec staff need to get out of the building and visit the ecosystem to be assured that the reality on the ground matches the corporation’s innovation challenges. These visits should be led by the CEO, and maybe even include the corporation’s board of directors, along with execs who are expected to be innovation change agents. This exploration requires a deeper understanding than can be accomplished in a single visit.

While the default for most Innovation Outposts is Silicon Valley, it may not necessarily be the best fit for a particular company. Visiting the Valley might help an exec staff understand whether this innovation ecosystem would be right for them. For example, CVS opened its Digital Innovation Lab in Boston as did John Hancock, while Thomson Reuters picked both Boston and Waterloo Canada and Coca-Cola has its Bridge Innovation Lab in Tel Aviv. Exploration may require several visits to each of the innovation ecosystems of interest to pick the right one.

5. What is our company’s strategy for successfully integrating an Innovation Outpost?

Innovation Outposts most often fail when they come up with innovations no operating division wants and/or the company refuses to fund. (The ghosts of Xerox’s failure to adopt their Innovation Outpost inventions that became the Apple Macintosh still haunt Innovation Outposts.) There needs to be prior agreement on what happens if the division develops disruptive products that do not fit the existing company business model. Does it become a new division? Does it get spun out? Sold?

6. How do we establish the Innovation Outpost and staff the innovation enabling group(s) which will be part of the first phase of the Outpost?

Establishing an outpost enables innovation but does not constitute innovation. Once a company has decided to open an Innovation Outpost, it has to choose:

  • How to leverage startup innovation in the cluster – will the outpost invest, partner, acquire, incubate or invent?
  • What is the timeline to a ROI for Innovation Outpost? Again, the participation of the senior executives in these decisions is critical.

This process for establishing the Innovation Outpost will be the topic of the next post.

The complete six-step decision process is shown in Figure 1.

 

Outpost flow chart

Figure 1: The decision process for establishing a Corporation Innovation Outpost

Lessons Learned:

  • To avoid “innovation theater”, Corporations should use a step-by-step decision process to determine the role the Innovation Outpost will play
  • The decision to establish (and later expand) an Innovation Outpost must be taken by the CEO working with the senior management team
    • It requires hands-on management by the CEO and the senior executive team
    • Just saying it has “executive support” means it’s dead-on-arrival
    • If the Innovation Outpost’s is successful it will almost certainly conflict with other corporate innovation-related decisions.
  • Just establishing an Innovation Outpost doesn’t mean that the corporation is innovating
    • At first it just means there’s a new building

See Part 1: Innovation Outposts and The Evolution of Corporate R&D,  Part 2: Innovation Outposts: Going to Where the Action is, Part 3 of Innovation Outposts, Six Critical Decisions Before Establishing an Innovation Outpost and Part 4 How to Set Up a Corporate Innovation Outpost that Works

Innovation Outposts in Silicon Valley – Going to Where the Action Is

This is the second in a series about the changing models of corporate innovation co-authored with Evangelos Simoudis. Evangelos and I are working on what we hope will become a book about the new model for corporate entrepreneurship. Read part one on the Evolution of Corporate R&D.

——

Innovation and R&D Outposts
For decades large companies have set up R&D labs outside their corporate headquarters, often in foreign countries, in spite of having a large home market with lots local R&D talent. IBM’s research center in Zurich, GM’s research center in Israel, Toyota in the U.S are examples.

These remote R&D labs offered companies four benefits.

  • They enabled companies to comply with local government laws – for example to allow foreign subsidiaries to transfer manufacturing technology from the U.S. parent company while providing technical services for foreign customers
  • They improved their penetration of local and regional markets by adapting their products to the country or region
  • They helped to globalize their innovation cycle and tap foreign expertise and resources
  • They let companies develop products to launch in world markets simultaneously

Other companies operating in small markets with little R&D resources in their home country (ABB, Novartis and Hoffmann-La Roche in Switzerland, Philips in the Netherlands and Ericsson in Sweden) pursued R&D outside their home country by necessity.

Internationalization of R&D

source: Market versus technology drive in R&D internationalization: M von Zedtwitz, Oliver Gassmann

Innovation Outposts Are Moving To Innovation Clusters
Today, large companies are taking on a decidedly 21st-century twist. They are putting Innovation Outposts into Innovation Clusters -in particular Silicon Valley – to tap into the clusters’ innovation ecosystems.

(An Innovation Cluster is a concentration of interconnected companies that both compete and collaborate. Silicon Valley, Herzliya in Israel, Zhongguancun for software and Shenzen for hardware in China are examples of technology clusters, but so was Detroit for cars, Hollywood for movies, Milan for fashion.)

In the last five years, hundreds of large companies have established Innovation Outposts (and here) in Silicon Valley. The charter of these Innovation Outposts is to monitor Silicon Valley for new innovative technologies and/or companies (as emerging threats or potential tools for disruption) and then to take advantage of these innovations by creating new products or investing in startups.

While that’s the theory, the reality is that to date, most of these Innovation Outposts are at best another form of innovation theater – they make a large company feel like they’re innovating, but very few of these outposts change a company’s product direction and fewer impact their bottom line.

Companies who want their investments in Silicon Valley to be more than just press releases need to think through an end-to-end corporate outpost strategy.

This series of posts offers companies the tools to develop an Innovation Outpost strategy:

  • Determining whether a Corporate Innovation Outpost is necessary
  • Planning how to establish an Innovation Outpost
  • Deciding how to expand the Outpost

Sense and Respond

The first objective of an Innovation Outpost is to sense, i.e., look for or monitor the development of potential innovations that:

  1. Can become threats that could lead to the disruption of the corporate parent. For example, American Express’s Silicon Valley Innovation Outpost is monitoring innovations in financial technologies that are created by companies such as Square. Evangelos and I are in the process of developing a tool for diagnosing corporate disruption through innovations pursued by startups.
  1. Would allow the corporation itself to be disruptive by entering adjacent markets to the ones it currently serves or creating and introducing novel and disruptive offerings for new markets. For example, USAA is looking for software innovations that will enable it to introduce Usage-Based Insurance products to disrupt the car insurance market.

The second objective of the corporate Innovation Outpost is to respond to identified threats and potential opportunities. Companies tend to set up their outposts to respond in one of five ways:

  1. Invent: They establish project-specific advanced development efforts like Delphi Automotive’s autonomous car navigation project or broader Horizon 3 basic research efforts that take advantage of, or investigate, technologies and business models the innovation ecosystem is known for in order to create new products and services. For example, Verizon’s Silicon Valley R&D center focuses on big data and software technologies, as well as online advertising-based business models. Sometimes these Horizon 3 research efforts may be associated with a moonshot the corporation would like to pursue as is the case with Google (Google Car), Apple (iPhone) and IBM (Watson).
  1. Invest: They allocate a corporate venture fund that invests in startups working on technology and/or business model innovations of interest. For example, UPS recently invested in Ally Commerce in order to understand the logistics opportunities arising from manufacturers selling directly to consumers rather than through distributors.
  1. Incubate: They support the efforts of very early stage teams and companies that want to develop solutions in areas of interest–for example, Samsung’s incubator focuses on startups working on the Internet of Things—or they experiment with new corporate cultures and work environments –for example, Standard Chartered Bank’s startup studio.
  1. Acquire: Companies buy startups in order to access both the innovations the startups are developing and their employees, and in the process inhibit competitors from getting them. For example, Google acquired several of the robotics startups that had what was considered the best intellectual property.
  1. Partner: Collaborate with startups in order to develop a disruptive new solution using their innovations along with the corporations or to distribute innovative solutions the start up has developed. For example, a few years ago Mercedes partnered with Tesla in batteries for electric vehicles.

After working with over 100 companies, Evangelos and I clearly see that some of these five responses are more effective than others. Moreover, the speed of the response is as important as the ability to respond.  Corporations that establish Innovation Outposts often lose on speed, not on their ability to sense. What makes an outpost an effective contributor versus one that’s simply an expense item starts back at corporate headquarters with a company’s overall innovation strategy. So before we talk about the tactics of establishing an outpost, lets think about what types of discussions and decisions should first happen at the “C-level” before anyone leaves the building.

Lessons Learned

  • Companies are establishing Innovation Outposts in Silicon Valley
  • They do this to sense and/or respond to technology shifts
    • Sense means monitor the development of potential innovations that can become threats or would allow the corporation to be disruptive
    • Respond means, Invent, Invest, Incubate, Acquire or Partner
  • Most of these Innovation Outposts will become Innovation Theater and fail to add to the company

See Part 1: Innovation Outposts and The Evolution of Corporate R&D,  Part 2: Innovation Outposts: Going to Where the Action is, Part 3 of Innovation Outposts, Six Critical Decisions Before Establishing an Innovation Outpost and Part 4 How to Set Up a Corporate Innovation Outpost that Works

Innovation Outposts and The Evolution of Corporate R&D

I first met Evangelos Simoudis when he ran IBM’s Business Intelligence Solutions Division and then as CEO of his first startup Customer Analytics. Evangelos has spent the last 15 years as a Venture Capitalist, first at Apax Partners and later at Trident Capital. During the last three years he’s worked with over 100 companies, many of which established Innovation Outposts in Silicon Valley. He’s now helping companies get the most out of their relationships with Silicon Valley.

Evangelos writes extensively about the future of corporate innovation on his blog.

Evangelos and I are working on what we hope will become a book about the new model for corporate entrepreneurship. His insights about how large companies are using the Valley is the core of this series of four co-authored blog posts.

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The last 40 years have seen an explosive adoption of new technologies (social media, telecom, life sciences, etc.) and the emergence of new industries, markets and customers. Not only are the number of new technologies and entrants growing, but also increasing is the rate at which technology is disrupting existing companies. As a result, while companies are facing continuous disruption, current corporate organizational strategies and structures have failed to keep pace with the rapid pace of innovation.

This burst of technology innovation and attendant disruption to corporate strategies and organizational structures is nothing new. As Carlota Perez points out, (see Figure 1) technology revolutions happen every half-century or so. According to Perez, there have been five of these technology revolutions in the last 240 years.

carlota perez 5 tech cycles

Figure 1: Five technology revolutions   source: Carlota Perez

Perez divides technology revolutions into two periods (Figure 2): The Installation Period and the Deployment Period.  In the Installation Period, a great surge of technology development (Perez calls this Irruption) is followed by an explosion of investment (called the Frenzy.) This is followed by a financial crash and then the Deployment period when the technology becomes widely adopted. In between the Installation and Deployment periods lies a turning point called Institutional Adjustment when institutions (companies, society, et al) adjust to the new technologies.

life cycle of tech

Figure 2: The two periods characterizing technology revolutions   source: Carlota Perez

Historically during this Institutional Adjustment period companies have to adjust their corporate strategies to deal with these technology shifts. The change in corporate strategy forces a change in the structure of how a company is organized. In the U.S. we’ve gone through three of these structural shifts. We’re now in the middle of the fourth. Lets quickly review them and see what these past shifts can tell us about the future of corporate R&D.

Institutional Adjustments
In the first 50 years of commerce in the then-new United States, most businesses were general merchants, buying and selling all types of products as exporters, wholesaler, importers, etc. By 1840 companies began to specialize in a single type of goods like cotton, wheat or drugs, etc. and concentrated on a single part of the supply chain – importing, distribution, wholesale, retail. This shift from general merchants to specialists was the first structural shift in American commerce.

These specialist companies were still small local businesses. Ownership and management were one and the same – the owners managed, and there were no salaried middle managers or administrators.

In the 1850’s and 60’s, the railroads changed all that. The railroads initially served a region of the country, but very quickly grew into nationwide companies. The last quarter of the 19th century, what Perez calls the Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering, saw the growth of America’s first national corporations in railroads, steel, telegraph, meatpacking, and industrial equipment. These growing national companies were challenged to figure out how to organize an organization of increased complexity that resulted from their large size, and geographic scale as well as their horizontal and vertical integration.  For example, US Steel had integrated vertically and was involved in the mining of the iron ore all the way to the production of various steel products, e.g., nails. These new corporate strategies drove companies to build structures around functions (manufacturing, purchasing, sales, etc.) and to develop professional managers and management hierarchies to run them. Less than 50 years later, by the beginning of the 20th century, the modern form of the corporation had emerged. (For the best explanation of this see Chandler’s The Visible Hand.) This shift from small businesses to corporations organized by function was the second structural shift in American commerce.

By the 1920’s, in Perez’s Age of the Automobile and Oil, companies once again faced new strategic pressures as physical distances in the United States limited the reach of day-to-day hands-on management. In addition, firms found themselves now managing diverse product lines. In response, another structural shift in corporate organization occurred. In the 1920’s companies moved from monolithic functional organizations (sales, marketing, manufacturing, purchasing, etc.) and reorganized into operating divisions (by product, territory, brand, etc.), each with its own profit and loss responsibility. This strategy-to-structure shift from functional organizations to operating divisions was led by DuPont and popularized by General Motors and quickly followed by Standard Oil and Sears. This was the third structural shift in American commerce.

The 1970’s marked the beginning of our current technology revolution: The Age of Information Technologies, Telecommunications and Biotech. This revolution is not only creating new industries but also affecting existing ones – from retail to manufacturing, and from transportation to financial services. We are now somewhere between the end of Installation and the beginning Deployment – that confusing period between the end of the Frenzy and the beginning of the Turning Point, during which time institutional adjustments are necessary. Existing companies are starting to feel the pressures of new technologies and the massive wave of new entrants fueled by the explosion of investment from a recent form of financing – venture capital. (Venture capital firms, as we know them only date back to the 1970s.)  Companies facing continuous disruption need to find new corporate strategies and structures. This fourth structural shift in American commerce is the focus of this series of blog posts. In particular, we are going to focus on how each of these shifts has changed the organization and role of Corporate R&D.

Corporate R&D Evolves With Each New Structural Shift
Each institutional adjustment also changed how companies innovated and built new products. During the Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering in the 1870’s to 1920’s, innovation occurred outside the corporation via independent inventors and small companies. Inventors such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Colt come to mind. Patents, inventions and small companies were sold to larger corporations. By the 1920’s, in the Age of the Automobile and Oil, large companies sought to control the new product development process. To do so they brought innovation and invention into the company by setting up storied Corporate R&D Labs such as GE Labs, DuPont Labs, Bell Labs, IBM Research, 3M, Xerox PARC, and Kodak Labs. By the 1950’s Shumpeter observed that in-house R&D had replaced the inventor-entrepreneur. The technology cycle was in the Synergy and Maturity phase, and little innovation was happening outside of companies. It was corporate R&D labs that set the pace of innovation in each industry.

Corporate R&D Labs

As the Age of Information Technologies and Telecommunications gained momentum in the 1970’s, the Irruption phase of this new technology cycle created an onslaught of new startups funded by venture capital. Think of companies like Apple, Digital Equipment Corporation, Sun Microsystems and Genentech.  The beginning of a new technology cycle didn’t come with a memo or a formal announcement. Corporate R&D and Strategy groups that had been successful for the past 70 years were finding their traditional methods no longer worked.

Historically Corporate Strategy and R&D groups worked hand-in-hand to keep companies competitive. They were adept at analyzing competitors, trends, new technologies and potential disruptors to the corporation’s business. Corporate Strategy would develop plans for new products, and R&D would then create and patent the disruptive innovations. Tasked with “looking over the horizon,” Corporate R&D and Strategy organizations looked at the last technology cycle and the existing incumbents instead of seeing the new technology cycle and the new wave of startups.

Corporate R&D in the Age of the CEO as Chief Execution Officer
Ironically as the new technology cycle went from Irruption to Frenzy (remember Perez’s stages of technology revolutions), existing corporations headed in the other direction. Over the past 15-20 years as startups were funded with ever-increasing waves of investment, companies have cut back their investment in innovation. Corporations focused on financial metrics like Return On Net Assets and Internal Rate of Return to reap the benefits of the last technology cycle. This meant R&D organizations have been pushed to work more on D (development) and less on R (research.) Researchers addressed short-term, Horizon 1 problems (existing business models, last technology cycle) rather than working on potentially disruptive Horizon 3 ideas from the next technology cycle. (See here for background on horizons.)

As a result, corporate R&D organizations have been producing sustaining innovations that protect and prolong the life of existing business models and their products and revenue streams. While this optimizes short-term Return On Net Assets and Internal Rate of Return, it destroys long-term innovation and investment in the next technology cycle.

While that’s the good news for short to mid-term revenue growth, the bad news is that corporate R&D’s is investing much less on disruptive new ideas and the next technology cycle and instead focusing on the development of incremental technologies. The result is a brain-drain of researchers who want to do the next big thing. Corporate researchers are voting with their feet, leaving to join startups or to start companies themselves, further hampering corporate innovation efforts. Ironically as the general pace of innovation accelerates outside companies, internal R&D organizations no longer have the capability to disrupt or anticipate disruptions.

Because of declining corporate investment in disruptive research and business model innovation, the typical corporate R&D organization can’t:

  • Keep up with technology innovations: Even corporations with high R&D spending are concluding that their existing R&D model cannot keep pace with exponential technologies and the accelerating pace of information technologies, biotechnologies, and materials
  • Address the global creation of innovation: Disruptive innovation is now created around the world by companies of any size, many of them startups. These companies are funded by abundant capital from institutional venture investors, private investors, and other sources. Our hyperconnected world is amplifying the effects of these companies and enabling them to have global impact, as seen with companies from Israel, India, China, and Brazil
  • Properly align technology with other types of innovation: Corporate R&D remains focused on technology innovation. Certainly these organizations have little, or no, ability to appreciate and create other forms of innovation

By the 1990’s corporate innovation strategies changed to a focus on startups—investing in, partnering with or buying them.  Companies built corporate venture capital and business development groups.

But by 2010, this technology cycle moved into the Frenzy phase of innovation investment. Corporate R&D Labs could not keep up with the pace of external invention.  Increasingly corporate venture capital involved too long of a lead-time for corporate technology investments to pay off.

To adapt to the current frenetic pace of innovation, corporations have created a new organizational structure called the Innovation Outpost. They are placing these outposts at the center of the source of innovation: startup ecosystems.

See Part 1: Innovation Outposts and The Evolution of Corporate R&D,  Part 2: Innovation Outposts: Going to Where the Action is, Part 3 of Innovation Outposts, Six Critical Decisions Before Establishing an Innovation Outpost and Part 4 How to Set Up a Corporate Innovation Outpost that Works.

Be sure to check out about the future of corporate innovation on Evangelos Simoudis blog.

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