Key Ingredients for Successful Innovation Partnerships with Startups

Since we opened our doors in 2015, MATTER has worked with life sciences companies across the globe. Many of the organizations we work with actively seek out solutions to optimize their business objectives. However, establishing successful partnerships between large, established organizations and small, more agile startup companies is often a complex endeavor that requires an investment of time, resources, and creativity from both parties.

So how can life sciences companies assure that their investments—both time and financial—will yield successful partnerships? While the journey to incorporating innovative solutions looks different for every organization, we’ve found five essential ingredients that every life sciences organization must have in order to effectively implement innovation partnerships. These ingredients are based on our own work with life sciences companies, including successful projects, those that required course corrects mid-stream, and those that simply didn’t turn out as hoped.

1. Leadership Buy-in

First and foremost: Leadership matters. Without leadership dedicated to creating the right conditions—infusing an organization with a shared set of values conducive to innovation—it’s difficult to create the kind of environment needed for people to transform new ideas into meaningful solutions.

Within every big company exists many and varied “innovation antibodies” that reflexively shut down new ways of thinking, risk-taking, and intrapreneurial activity. Combating those antibodies has to start from the top; otherwise, it’s too hard for innovators to gain momentum within complex and multi-layered organizations. Leadership support doesn’t mean the CEO has to be intimately involved in innovation (although it doesn’t hurt). But it does mean that someone high enough up in the organization to have far-reaching influence and clout must be an innovation champion—or the antibodies will most likely win.

If you’re an executive, ask yourself: Are you enabling your workforce to be innovative? Do your words and actions reflect a dedication to the process of innovation—which can be messy and doesn’t always work out perfectly? Have you set clear expectations about the kinds of risks that aren’t just acceptable, but that are expected?

If you’re reading this and wondering how to convince your leaders of the value of innovation, my suggestion is to identify areas within your span of control where you can achieve small wins, and then use those to demonstrate the value that innovative thinking, smart risk-taking, and unorthodox approaches can bring to your organization.

2. Business Alignment

While leadership buy-in is an important first step, a lack of alignment throughout the business can stop innovation in its tracks.

Within organizations as large and complex as life sciences companies, efforts to become more innovative and implement solutions more quickly and effectively cannot just live with an innovation team. Alignment is required between business units around what implementing solutions means for the bottom line, and what is needed from each team in order to make innovation partnerships successful.

For example, we recently partnered with a top 10 pharmaceutical company to build an innovation challenge and accelerator program. Once we started to get the project off the ground, it became apparent that business units that would need to collaborate in order for the effort to be successful weren’t talking to each other.

The innovation team had never done anything like this before—nor had any of the adjacent business units. They were all operating in their silos based on their functions within the business, and they didn’t have the processes in place to work together on a shared project of this scale. So we took a step back. We worked with the innovation lead to get buy-in from executive leadership first, and then—with clear support from higher up—outlined a plan to get other business units on board.

Next, we spent time with different teams to ensure alignment around the importance of the project and worked with them on best practices for breaking down their internal silos. Now, with all teams on the same page, we were able to work together on a long-term innovation project to accelerate the implementation of novel solutions across their organization.

3. Defined Outcomes for Innovation Projects

Similarly, projects that don’t have defined objectives and outcomes can lose momentum and fizzle out.

Sourcing startup companies, vetting their products and business models, and integrating them into core business processes is complicated work. Many innovation teams within life sciences companies turn to external partners to guide them through this process—and it requires a real investment of both time and money. In most cases, it’s a good investment, but sometimes even if the organization finds the perfect solution, implementation stalls and then slows to a halt because the team didn’t take the time to clearly define their objectives.

As an example, we recently partnered with a large life sciences company that wanted to work with entrepreneurs to see what types of solutions they could come up with to improve the patient experience. We built an accelerator around this problem statement and helped them select a dozen candidates from a pool of hundreds of teams of entrepreneurs, students, and researchers from around the world. The selected teams worked closely with individuals from the life sciences company for several months, working together to refine their solutions in a mutually beneficial way.

We thought it was a big win. Except ultimately, when the program was complete and the organizations were on their own, none of the solutions moved forward. When we delved deeper into what went wrong, the answer was unanimous: There simply weren’t clearly defined goals for implementation and, after the initial phase of the program, the projects fizzled and died.

Setting clear, defined objectives at the beginning of a project—and keeping those objectives front and center throughout the sourcing and implementation process—is vital to ensuring that projects don’t lose steam.

4. Dedicated Time and Space

One leader at a large company was listening to me give a talk when she had an idea: What if she pulled together a team of employees from across the organization, cut them off from the day-to-day responsibilities of their jobs, and dropped them at MATTER? Could they learn to innovate faster and become more creative and effective shepherds of innovation throughout her organization? Removing these people from their jobs for any period of time would be costly, but she believed in the potential payoff down the road.

Together, we designed a 12-week sprint for a team of employees. A cross-functional team from different parts of the company arrived at MATTER with a specific problem they wanted to solve. We surrounded them with resources—including mentors, entrepreneurs, world-class speakers and thought leaders, interactive workshops, and programs—and helped them develop an innovation framework.

The team effectively became a startup, and it didn’t take long for the managers to embrace new ways of working to build a solution. During this time, the team had the opportunity to form relationships with other startups—gaining insights that might otherwise have taken years to develop. At the end of the program, the employees brought back to the company a solution to a complex problem they’d been wrestling with. More importantly, they learned how to think and operate like entrepreneurs—and when they immersed back into the company, they became change agents for the organization.

The lesson here is not that you have to take a team out of play for 12 weeks in order to achieve great results. But what is critically important is that the people you’re expecting to drive innovation have the flexibility and freedom to pursue innovation through its twists and turns, and they need to have the support of their managers and of upper management in order to do so.

5. A Willingness to Take Chances

The final ingredient is often the hardest for large organizations to get comfortable with. When it comes to innovating effectively, you just have to try things. We frequently see companies waiting to identify the perfect thing to do—and the reality is that succeeding on the first try is less important than creating safe spaces for people to experiment and learn.

Innovation is an inherently messy and experimental process. By definition, a lot of experiments aren’t going to work, and that’s okay. What’s important is what you learn from those experiences. That’s how startups operate, and it’s why they can be so successful at rapidly evolving their offerings in response to market feedback. They test things that aren’t perfect, get feedback, and iterate. The key is that they learn from those experiences and then double down on what is working until they’ve created something new. That’s only possible in an environment where it’s okay to experiment, and where it’s understood that most experiments will be learning exercises that will advance the organization toward an important goal, rather than be solutions in and of themselves.

Innovation in any large organization aligns more closely with the tortoise than the hare: It takes a long time and it requires a lot of persistence. Organizations need to make a long-term commitment to innovation and recognize that the ROI may not come in year one or even year three. It takes time to develop new ideas, incorporate new solutions into existing processes, and evolve an organization to operate differently. But if you think beyond quarterly sales numbers and align your organization against these five characteristics, you can create successful partnerships with startup companies that can help set your organization up for long-term success.

  • Steven Collens

    Steven Collens is CEO of MATTER, the healthcare technology incubator and innovation center. MATTER works with more than 200 healthcare technology ventures and the company partners with dozens of industry-leading life sciences companies, payers, health systems, and universities.


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