The Rise of the Corporate Accelerator

By Serge Salager, Founder and CEO of RetargetLinks (Techstars Class 143, Rakuten Accelerator, Powered by Techstars 2018)

The Era of Corporate Venture Capital

In 1914, the stock of a still private, 6-year-old startup called General Motors leapt in value by seven-fold.

Pierre S. DuPont, an investor in the corporation, convinced the board of directors of the chemical conglomerate to add another $25 million dollars in investment. DuPont didn’t know it, but he had started an era: the era of Corporate Venture Capital.

One organization with an impressive Corporate Venture Capital fund was Xerox. Xerox had an active CVC program since the 1960s that operated an internally managed fund with the intent of investing in some of the legendary figures in Silicon Valley — including Steve Jobs.

Xerox Technology Ventures netted capital gains of $219 million dollars, which was a net return of 56% on the initial investment — far greater than independent VCs.

However, it was terminated early. Why? The structure of the program provided executives with hefty compensations and led to turmoil between Xerox managers and the the Venture executives. It was also believed that the startups that were part of the program might have succeeded at the expense of other Xerox units.

With the scraping of XTV, a lot of corporations pulled the plug on their CVC funds — causing a brief hiatus in the CVC era.

The Advent of the Accelerator

In 2005, Jessica Livingston was interviewing for a job at the Boston VC Fund. She was frustrated with the amount of time it took for VCs to make decisions — a major problem for startups — and after discussing the problem with Paul Graham, they created Y Combinator together, with the intention of supporting early stage companies.

Over the next decade, a total of nearly $207 million was invested into 11,305 startups via 579 accelerator programs, according to the Global Accelerator Report 2016 by Gust.

In 2006, Techstars, launched its first accelerator, and soon these two industry leaders were joined by the likes of 500 Startups, Launchpad, and others.

Corporations Catch Up… and Pivot

Corporates noted the success of these accelerators, and soon started launching their own versions.

Enterprises including Microsoft, Citrix, and Telefonica were among the first companies to offer such programs in the early 2010s (although these have been discontinued). Since then there have been 71 corporate accelerators launched worldwide, most of which are recorded in a Corporate Accelerator Database.

However, as tech writer Erin Griffith discusses in her Fortune article ”Why Are Corporations So Bad At Working With Startups?”, the Corporate Accelerator Model seemed mainly driven by the urge for large enterprises to loosely plug themselves in with the source of innovations that displaced giants like Exxon Mobil and GE from the top of the perch on the NYSE and the Nasdaq.

In a survey made in 2017, 500 Startups found that 81% of the startups said that fewer than 25% of their startup pilots had resulted in commercial sales. This led Y Combinator to give a cold shoulder to the Corporate Accelerator Model.

The failing of the initial corporate accelerator model is similar to that of the first corporate venture fund. There was a misalignment between the speed and the risks that startups take and those of their corporate mentors. Pilots with large corporates, a promise that attract startups to the large corporates in the first place, take too long to put in place, as those running the day to day operations are busy with their daily grind and don’t have the same incentives as the staff running the corporate accelerator.

The “Outsourced” Corporate Accelerator

Techstars, founded by serial entrepreneurs and investors David Cohen and David Brown, went on a different route and embraced the corporate accelerator model, which I call — for lack of a better term — an “outsourced” corporate accelerator. In David Cohen and David Brown’s vision, corporations saw a way to manage a corporate accelerator with a professional team and proven method. Techstars corporate partner accelerators help startup teams to be successful faster by taking advantage of the mentorship, resources and opportunities large corporations have to offer — and in return, the startups provide corporations emerging technology insights poised to disrupt their industries.

In 2012, the Microsoft Kinect accelerator was the first of the corporate partner accelerators from Techstars. Four years later, David Cohen declared in a Techstar blog post that “as our partners actively rethink what corporate innovation means, they’re learning that it’s about both long and short term focus. They’re learning that they need corpdev programs that move the needle now, but they also need to grow the right ecosystems around themselves.”

Techstars now has over 50 corporate partners worldwide, including Barclays, Rakuten, Amazon, Alexa, Target, SAP, and Ford (just to name a few).

In fact, seven out of nine fall 2018 demo days are from these new breed of accelerators. Our startup, RetargetLinks, has just completed the Rakuten Accelerator, Powered by Techstars, which is their first accelerator in Asia and the first with Rakuten.

We are actually a double corporate accelerator alum as we also went through the Brandery accelerator in Cincinnati where we had the opportunity to pilot our link retargeting technology with Olay.

The Benefits

One of the benefits that partnership corporate accelerators are meant to have over traditional corporate accelerators is the idea of focusing on the startups, rather than solely fulfilling the objectives of the corporates. Sphero had already graduated from its first Techstars accelerator and sold over $20 million in products before joining Disney Accelerator powered by Techstars. Why go back? As CEO Adam Wilson said: “[We] were looking for guidance to take [our] products to the next level, to infuse a deeper story into our robots.”

This is exactly what the Techstars Disney accelerator was able to provide. Sphero struck gold with Disney, leading to the development of the record-breaking BB8 robot. It is interesting to also go back and see that 100% of the companies from the 2014 Techstars Disney Accelerator have either raised funds or been acquired.

What’s Next?

Corporate partnerships with the startup ecosystem have developed extensively over the years. While it is definite that the corporate accelerator model will still improve and refine itself further, it is unclear how. The silver lining is that, no matter how, whether through corporate Venture Capital, corporate partnerships, or corporate accelerator programs, startups will continually generate value for corporate organizations and corporate organizations will continue to invest in the startup ecosystem.

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A shorter version of this piece was published in Entrepreneur.

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Both corporations and startups benefit from Techstars corporate partner accelerators: Corporations, learn how Techstars can connect you with the most promising startups to future-proof your business.

Startups, apply now to Techstars mentorship-driven accelerator programs.