Entrepreneurs were given the chance to question John Lewis CIO Paul Coby on the retail giant’s new tech incubator through a Reddit discussion yesterday. 

The ‘JLAB’ incubator will open its doors to five start-ups in June and see them nurtured for three months before a new cohort is welcomed. Each business that is accepted into the JLAB receives £12,500 in return for a four percent equity stake, while one winner will be offered up to £100,000 and the chance to supply the John Lewis estate with their technology. 

Driving new technology into large organisations through incubators is becoming increasingly popular, with Tesco, Barclays and Pearson all announcing similar initiatives over the past couple of years.

But start-up founders and CEOs were particularly keen to grill Coby and his colleagues on how the retailer will benefit by working side-by-side with their firms.

Reddit user “drm22” said: “What does JL want to gain - is it to encourage retail tech innovation as a start-up area, or to get new product to use in JLP?”

Coby responded: “The answer is both! We want to contribute to the shopping experience of the future, and help find new ways to improve our customers' experience - no matter how they choose to shop with us. Inevitably, the winner will have a product or service available which, if appropriate, could be used across the John Lewis estate.”

Meanwhile, Reddit user “Billypops”, questioned the legitimacy of the incubator, asking: “Isn't JLAB more of a PR thing than an actual incubator? JL is famously conservative and £100k is quite low compared to agency fees you've paid out to suppliers in the past to develop your own sites and apps.”

However, Coby was quick to deny this. “No, this is not just a PR thing,” he said. “The winning idea - whether it's a product or a service - will remain proprietary to the business, who will have the opportunity to sell it to John Lewis.”

On why John Lewis decided to launch the incubator in the first place, Coby said: “Working with start-ups in this way also helps us to learn a different way of doing things. They have a very different mentality from a big business like ourselves, and they are often on the cutting-edge of new technologies and ideas.”

Reddit user “jmarcelino” put the John Lewis execs on the spot when he asked whether they would be willing to pay for specialised equipment to support them in the incubator.

"£12 500 is great, but would be hard to develop something really great on that budget if it's used to support costs of living/transport, equipment,...” he said.

John Lewis technology entrepreneur, Stuart Marks, responded saying John Lewis would "consider" sourcing equipment outside the intial investment, adding that it would depend on the circumstances.

Applications for JLAB close on 17 April and the retailer will ask 30 businesses to a JLAB panel on 20 May. The chosen winner will be announced the following day and they will be given the chance to pitch for the £100,000 prize on 23 September.