The playing field is leveling between David and Goliath. We are living in an incredible time for entrepreneurship, in which it is widely accepted that game-changing businesses can pop up in both boardrooms and dorm rooms.

Just ask Twitter, who quickly pounced on streaming mobile video platform Periscope for a massive figure while the team was 15 months old. Or GoPro, who probably wishes they had a look at Lily Camera before it went viral and raised a huge pre-order campaign. (Disclaimer: both companies were founded by Kairos Fellows.)

Peer Pressure

To stay ahead of the curve, Fortune 500 budgets started flowing into entrepreneurship and innovation, with seemingly every corporation suffering from FOMO ("fear of missing out") on the next big thing.

Sure, it's no surprise that Google has ways for startups to plug in, but did you know that Northrop Grumman has an accelerator? How about Comcast?

Who's Celebrating?

A couple years into this new framework for collaboration, it seems reasonable to assume that both the C-suite allocating the budgets and the startups giving up meaningful equity are wondering whether this is actually working.

How do startups know which corporations actually care about helping them advance their early-stage business, and are not simply looking to check the "innovation" box or outsource R&D?

How can corporations harness the agility and creativity of early-stage teams to advance their businesses into new categories?

Let's dive in.

GE Goes Big on Drones and Robotics

As GE saw drones and robotics as the future for inspection, they pegged former global director of innovation for GE, Alex Tepper, to explore the market.

After investing in drone software company Airware, GE learned about the market and how they could play a role in its development.

Says Tepper, “One of the ways we find we can move big ideas forward faster is by partnering with start-ups. When we are able to combine GE technology and reach with the creative ideas and passion from innovative startups we are able to make real change for us and the world.”

“For example, we are partnering with startups to offer our customers inspection services via drones. Technology like drones have the ability to reduce downtime, increase safety and provide more reliable operations for customers and that's something we are excited about."

Sprint Opens its Doors

A year ago, Sprint viewed its new accelerator as a bold experiment, supporting healthcare technology startups right in the heart of Kansas City. Today, they are opening up the program to all mobile startups.

Sarah Tulin, co-founder of Oxie (the world's first wearable air purifier), fresh out of the Sprint Accelerator, affirms that "Sprint provided the necessary support for early stage entrepreneurs to learn about corporate structure. It was refreshing to work with a company that was so hands-on."

Oxie's experience highlights a hidden benefit for startups: learning about the inner-workings of the corporate world.

Cisco is Buying

While most accelerators rarely promise outcomes beyond initial funding, Cisco's Entrepreneur-in-Residence program is designed with different ambitious intentions: to help enterprise startups scale to market quicker through Cisco's business units.

In the past two years, Cisco EIR has plugged its startups into dozens of projects with Cisco and its partners and customers. Their secret sauce? Direct collaboration with their business units.

"Every startup coming into Cisco EIR is matched with a Cisco executive sponsor and his/her engineering or go-to-market team. That Cisco team collaborates closely with the startup to build joint engineering and customer engagement opportunities." explains Tom Yoritaka, managing director of Cisco EIR.

As a startup founder, you know that partnering with Cisco EIR means they are serious about helping you grow.

Why care?

Personally, I believe the most crucial and desired outcome of this new trend will arrive when these collaborations between David and Goliath permeate critical sectors like education and healthcare, in which distribution and sales cycles can be crippling for startups.

Interestingly, when Intel decided to launch an accelerator, they chose to leverage their resources to drive growth in education.

Intel Education GM John Galvin maintains "We chose to develop this accelerator in education because education is in our DNA at Intel--dating back to our founders, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore. As academics, they knew the importance of education to develop the next generation of innovators. We saw this as a great opportunity to expand our support into young startups that share our vision of improving the lives of every student."

I recognize that there are horror stories about startups not getting the value that they read on the corporate accelerator website, but in the interest of optimism we will save that post for another time.

My point here is that some corporations are making a real effort, but the necessary buy-in and attitude shift cannot happen overnight. I'm rooting for effective corporate innovation to become the norm: if we can bring meaningful innovation to market quicker, everybody wins.

Published on: Sep 3, 2015