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A good idea faces so many obstacles en route to market today that it’s a wonder we have any innovative products at all. You know those baby sea turtles that get eaten by birds and crabs on their way from the nest to the water? It’s like that.
Corporations have narrowed the focus of their R&D by pressing for clear, short-term wins; venture capitalists are too quick to get caught up in the latest, hottest thing; and even the vaunted crowdfunding option is pretty limited: It’s great if you’re an internet star, but try getting a crowd excited about an innovative idea in industrial machinery.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Effective means of boosting innovation already exist, but not enough companies are making use of them. Two in particular are corporate venture funds, which invest in start-ups outside companies’ walls, and internal idea contests. I’ll describe both, but first let’s look at what’s wrong with some of the traditional sources of innovation.
Corporate R&D too often focuses on refining technologies that are already in use. You can see why: For decades in the U.S., billions were spent on big science, and the commercial returns were disappointing. But cutting back on research funding doesn’t work either. In the 1990s, Eastman Kodak cut its R&D spending and focused on film, a technology that was clearly successful (you know where this is going); and in the 2000s, Nokia focused on maintaining its strong position in low-end phones (you know where this is going too — Kodak filed for bankruptcy, and Nokia, whose phone business is now being bought by Microsoft, suffered from having missed the smartphone wave). Even in companies that are diligent about looking to the future, R&D has a tendency to be slow, rigid, and expensive.
Independent venture capital is a vital force in funding start-ups, but VCs tend to have a narrow focus on certain industries and geographies. Their funding cycles are volatile, too — it’s either feast or famine — and they expect returns within a few years.
Crowdfunding has undeniable power, but rather than solve the problems of venture capital, it exaggerates them. The glamorous projects inevitably get the bulk of the funding, while more experimental, more complex, and more pedestrian projects lose out. If VC is “unfair,” crowdfunding is even more unfair.
Corporate venture capital can avoid some of these problems. A corporate venture-capital fund can often do a better job than corporate R&D of exploring new territory, and at the same time, it can move more quickly, flexibly, and cheaply than traditional R&D. In the 1990s and 2000s, for example, several corporate-venture initiatives helped pharmaceutical companies catch up with rapid advances in bioscience that were threatening to undermine the value of their well-established expertise. And corporate venture funds, if well managed, can avoid the fickleness problem that plagues independent venture capital and crowdfunding.
Many large companies have been wary of corporate venturing, because they’ve seen such funds deployed ineffectively. And it’s true that if companies aren’t careful, their internal venture capitalists can become entangled in the agendas of various corporate stakeholders or demotivated by inadequate or poorly designed financial incentives. That’s why it’s important that venture funds’ goals be aligned with corporate objectives, approvals for funding be streamlined, and compensation levels match those offered by independent venture groups. Companies that fail to provide adequate incentives face a steady stream of defections; after too many board meetings in which the corporate investor parks his Fiesta next to the independent venture capitalist’s Ferrari, the temptation to go elsewhere becomes too great.
Contests are at the opposite end of the size and cost scales from venture funding, but they can be an effective complement to a corporate innovation program. Companies should consider offering rewards for people who solve internal problems or create new products. It’s important to have a specific goal at the outset, and the rewards should be meaningful, but they don’t always have to involve cash. Recognition is a powerful reward too.
These two very different approaches aren’t the only ways to improve innovation, of course, but they’re particularly cost-effective as well as powerful in tapping the best aspects of both venture capital and the traditional corporate R&D approach. They demonstrate that with experimentation and ingenuity, even the most intractable problems are surmountable. They illustrate the range of programs that companies should be implementing to stimulate innovation and shepherd ideas toward marketable products.