Does the involvement of global firms make a difference to nurturing technology innovations? For me, the answer is yes. In October, I will again be a mentor to early stage technology start-ups at the IBM SmartCamp accelerator in London.
This year’s event aims to harness innovation for more sustainable urban living, from start-ups across the UK and Ireland. I believe the company’s involvement in this event, and the breakthroughs they identify, will be of as much benefit in the years ahead to the wider public as the start-ups themselves.
I became involved with this programme two years ago. Not only was it worthwhile and professionally led, there was effective follow-up afterwards. All the judges were impressed with an entry process which had delivered serious companies that had exciting ideas with real commercial potential.
This event differs from many boot camps in that it focuses on guiding exciting innovations that change the way we do things while helping deliver commercial opportunities. Many events leave only the feel-good factor of making new connections.
Others indulge ideas that are impressive in themselves but ultimately have little obvious business value. With so much valuable innovation going on in Silicon Roundabout and Dublin and many other hubs, emerging technology firms deserve something better and more sustainable.
By contrast, this programme harnesses the know-how of leaders in business, technology and commercial management. Entrepreneurs will always benefit from a broader market perspective. If as a judge, you see the business before you is the fifteenth attempt to solve a particular problem, you are well placed to offer practical input on how sustainable the concept really is and the likely outcome.
I have seen the difference that this type of event’s long-term focus makes. As a mentor to the 2011 UK & Ireland area winner, Profitero, I tracked the firm’s progress. The company benefited from involvement with different IBM management, technology and sales operations. I also meet them every few months to see for myself how things are going.
Another lasting benefit for the start-ups is the mentors’ commercial focus: they will ask the fundamental questions about the challenge or market opportunity being addressed. Mentors will quickly assess whether the innovation is going to make a difference to customers and whether it has commercial potential.
I know from experience that when you are building your business, it’s easy to become focused on the what, rather than focusing on the why – the business’s goal, its potential return, or the reason for its existence. It is easy to get wrapped up in a piece of technology or pin your hopes on an exciting new app and lose sight of why the innovation really matters to people.
The most successful entrants demonstrate practical ideas and real focus in commercialising them. Profitero delivered an effective, tactically-focused offering for manufacturers that wanted quicker intelligence on competitor pricing.
The company didn’t dilute its offering by attempting to strategically rethink market pricing as a whole. As a result, it delivered a product that was very valuable to customers. Profitero went on to be the winner of the IBM Global Entrepreneur Programme for 2011.
Equally important for our future lives is the potential of technology innovations to bring about better use of resources and achieve more sustainable living in our cities. At the 2010 event, we saw Worldsensing’s Fast Prk mobile parking application. This is an ingenious approach to a perennial problem for cities the world over and it makes real commercial sense.
Technology start-ups need more accelerators with a serious vision and business logic, events where high calibre judges quickly identify potential, helping deliver young technology firms with innovations for more sustainable living that will also move to the next level of growth and profitability.