Big Companies and Startups Need Each Other — Today More Than Ever

Pittsburgh and the Southwestern PA region have incredible assets, from world-class educational and medical institutions to large manufacturers and corporate headquarters. The burgeoning innovation ecosystem here has been called ‘the best-kept secret east of Silicon Valley.’ Yet, collaboration between Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial community and its major corporations has been opportunistic and ad hoc.

A 2017 study by the Brookings Institution highlighted both the opportunities and challenges for Pittsburgh in achieving its potential as a global innovation city. Engaging large corporations in our region and attracting additional companies to connect and collaborate with our research institutions, entrepreneurs and startups is critical to the continued growth and vibrancy of the Pittsburgh entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Over the past decade, the concept of ‘open innovation’ has taken hold among nearly all of the Fortune 500. Engaging with external partners, including startups, has gone from ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have.’ Leading companies now recognize that not all of the smart people work for them.

Large companies need the ideas, speed and agility of entrepreneurial startups to fuel their own growth and stay on top of emerging trends. Increasingly, startups recognize the power of engaging with strategic corporate partners for market understanding, scale, early customers and strategic investment.

Collectively, we need to leverage the best of both worlds and grow together.

Innovation Works (IW) is in a position to be a catalyst and organizer of corporate/startup collaboration. We’ve expanded our strategic initiatives around this theme, leveraging IW’s relationships and work in economic development, startup acceleration and seed/venture funding. We’re striving to help these two very different groups learn to work together more effectively.

But we definitely can’t do it alone. That’s why we’re working with a range of regional partners to help attract additional global corporations to participate in and benefit from engagement with world-class talent and technologies locally.

Examples of recent programs include:

  • In 2018, expanded IW’s Demo Day by inviting corporate executives (along with investors) to meet with local startups on the following day.
  • Supported recent Ford’s City of Tomorrow Challenge, which focused on new urban mobility solutions. Ford engaged the community in a series of workshops and involved the City of Pittsburgh in selecting and working with these teams. IW and our partners mentored and coached the finalists, culminating in two local startup teams receiving $100,000 in pilot funding from Ford.
  • Recently partnered with the Allegheny Conference in organizing a series of Executive Roundtable events to help senior corporate innovation executives in our region identify and drive new initiatives to improve corporate/startup collaboration.

Upcoming events and programs include:

  • On February 28, IW, CMU’s Corporate Startup Lab and other regional partners are collaborating to host a unique Reverse Pitch event, where corporate executives ‘pitch’ their needs and opportunities to an audience of 100+ local innovators and entrepreneurs (if interested, visit Several of these corporations are announcing specific innovation challenges with the goal of funding pilot engagements for the best solutions.
  • On March 1, AlphaLab Gear (IW’s hardware accelerator) is inviting corporate partners to hear pitches from its top 30 applicants for the upcoming cohort. The corporations get an early look at leading-edge startups and products in fields such as robotics, materials, textiles, consumer electronics, AR/VR, medical devices, energy/cleantech, autonomous vehicles, and more. These corporations’ feedback will help AlphaLab Gear pick the companies that will be invited to join the next cohort. Contact AlphaLab Gear if you’d like to learn more.
  • During Life Sciences Week 2019, we will be supporting Corporate Day (May 15) with two innovation matchmaking events. A morning session will focus on corporate/university matchmaking for emerging research and spinout technologies. The afternoon will include corporate/startup matchmaking to connect life-science startups with corporate R&D teams searching for innovation.

Beyond these specific activities, there is great momentum being built locally, with multiple initiatives underway by our universities, accelerators and local corporations; each is bringing executives and entrepreneurs together in new ways.

In doing our part, we intend to play to Pittsburgh’s strengths — not only in terms of technology sectors, but also in attracting corporate teams to engage broadly with the diverse, talented and passionate people in our region.

Corporate-startup collaboration creates a win-win situation not only for involved parties, but also a big win for our region, as more companies engage with Pittsburgh’s attractive entrepreneurial ecosystem. We couldn’t be more excited to be part of it and invite you to join us in the journey. Do you have an idea or opportunity to support corporate-startup collaboration in Pittsburgh? We’d love to hear about it.

By: Mike Docherty, Corporate Innovation Programs, Innovation Works



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