It seems like every day a new corporation is deciding to launch a startup accelerator. Just a few weeks back, the delivery company DPD launched its own as a way to help ‘secure the future of the delivery industry’. DPD joins a wealth of other companies including John Lewis, Ernst & Young, Wells Fargo (and our very good selves at BBC Worldwide) to name but a few who feel it’s important to have a startup programme within the business. Corporate startup accelerators are, you could say, very much in vogue.
These accelerators come in a variety of forms including cash in return for equity, mentoring, facilities and/or partnerships. At BBC Worldwide Labs we offer all of the above expect for the cash. We do not invest and we do not ask for any kind of exclusivity during the time that the startup is with us. Sounds like a pretty good deal for the startup, but what’s the benefit for BBC Worldwide you may ask?
Well, we get to work with the rising stars in the digital media space, an injection of entrepreneurial spirit within our own organisation and an opportunity to understand and explore technology and market trends sooner than our competitors. All important factors, and by adopting this approach, we’ve collaborated with some really interesting companies.
Take Constant Commerce (formerly known as Foodity). We partnered BBC Good Food with the startup to enable our audiences to buy the ingredients from our recipe site in 2013. This provided a new revenue stream and a more interesting and complete proposition to our readers. It was also a beneficial partnership for Constant Commerce too as Worldwide became one of their first clients. Two years later the startup now employs over 60 people and is forecast to turnover $10 million (£6.5 million) in 2015. So, should we, the startup’s first main client, have invested?
The problem is if a corporate owns a slice of the startup, then that could become commercially restrictive and suffocate a company’s growth. Indeed John Agnes, founder of Constant Commerce commented that at the time of joining the Labs progamme, the idea of BBC investment might have been very attractive. However, in hindsight, the kudos of having BBC Good Food as a partner was more beneficial than investment.
It seems to me, that if we were to concentrate on investment the companies and results of our programme would be very different. So does that mean that a corporate can only concentrate on innovation or investment?
Well, not necessarily. A fund held separately to an accelerator such as that of Unilever Ventures and The Foundry may work. In this instance, the latter concentrates on piloting and nurturing early stage companies and the former can look to invest sizeable amounts in companies that are more established. Whilst potentially complimentary, the two act independently of one another.
Another option is running a programme that is ‘powered’ by an independent accelerator. Take the Barclays accelerator, run by Techstars, for example. Here, Techstars provides the initial funding with the opportunity for Barclays to invest at the next round after the programme has finished. This allows Barclays to focus on the strategic fit first before looking to take a stake in the company. It also is appealing to a startup whose access to funding at such an early stage is crucial to their survival.
Alternatively an accelerator could ask the startup to enter into an option agreement allowing the corporate to invest at the company's next round. This is something that we have considered as it allows us to be first to the table if and when the time is right to invest.
Ultimately, corporate accelerators aren’t traditional accelerators. The latter has a strict focus on investment and mentoring in the hope of realising a return whereas those that sit within corporations have a variety of objectives including strategic partnerships. Therefore corporates should view an investment opportunity carefully before packaging it in as part of an accelerator programme.