The Risks of Corporate Incubators May Outweigh the Generous Rewards
We have seen a recent wave of fortune 500 companies breaking into the entrepreneurship game by establishing their own corporate incubators – Nike, Google, Microsoft and Samsung just to name a few. This article provides an overview of considerations for whether your start-up should accept an offer to join a corporate incubator.
Overview of Corporate Incubators
Corporate incubators are industry specific accelerators that help start-ups and entrepreneurs build a successful company/product but only within the structure of a large corporation. As compared to the traditional accelerator (e.g. Techstars or Ycombinator) that invest money and resources in a broad array of startups which span many platforms, corporate incubators are designed to help the sponsor build a portfolio of long-term product options, develop offshoots to existing products and generate innovative ideas that can help the sponsor grow its profits.
Why Established Companies Seek to Incubate Startups
Corporate incubators and accelerators are a vital source for idea generation and growth. Particularly for markets that are constantly evolving, an in-house incubator can help large companies pivot and change directions or develop a new business quickly. Even for companies in mature industries where M&A is drying up quickly (i.e. manufacturing or many food & beverage sectors), incubators and accelerators have become a part of their corporate structure to derive new profits. Not only do corporate incubators provide valuable ideas but they can also provide a company with home grown talent if the company runs short on valuable human capital. Given the level of visibility and access corporate executives have to talented young entrepreneurs through the incubator, it is not uncommon for the sponsor to make employment offers from its toy chest full of start-ups.
Benefits to Joining a Corporate Incubator
While joining a corporate incubator may seem like “selling out,” the benefits of a corporate sponsor may be too much temptation for any starry-eyed entrepreneur to resist. Corporate incubators give a start-up access to the company’s vast array of resources such as R&D, legal services, mentorship and often stable financial assistance to help the start-up scale its business. Furthermore, as compared to your typical accelerator or incubator, corporate incubators are generally industry focused and can provide tailored mentorship and resources that even some of the top accelerators such as Ycombinator or Techstars may not have access to. Not only are the resources a substantial benefit but another advantage is that a corporate incubator can immediately place a start-up on the radar of a strategic acquirer. Getting support from a corporate sponsor can be a significant step in the right direction for a start-up and often signals that the entrepreneurs may be on to something big and therefore should think seriously about an offer to join a corporate incubator. Like most things in life, however, there is often no such thing as a free lunch and there some serious challenges that start-ups should be aware of before joining the corporate payroll.
Considerations to Joining a Corporate Incubator
(1) Make sure you have clean title to your intellectual property
Joining a corporate incubator can be tricky when it comes to IP related issues especially when dealing with who owns any new IP that comes out of the incubation process. Before starting at a corporate incubator, make sure that all IP that has been created by any of the founders or employees has been documented and assigned to the business. While negotiating with a corporation is not easy and offers are often provided on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, try to work with legal counsel to ensure that any and all IP developed while in the incubator belongs to your start-up.
(2) Corporate bureaucracy can crush a start-up’s flexibility
One of the best aspects of being a start-up is the ability to be nimble and make quick decisions when needed. Large corporations are often not afforded this benefit as their size and governance structure can slow decision-making. If the corporation running the incubator obtains certain veto or control rights in a startup, that startup may lose its ability to make quick decisions. Getting caught up in such corporate bureaucracy and indecision (or a slow and lengthy decision making process) can quickly destroy a budding company. A startup can protect against this risk by closely reviewing the deal documents and avoiding granting the company running the incubator control over important decisions that a startup needs to make quickly (i.e., hiring, product direction, market strategy, issuances of equity to new hires, etc.) If the company running the incubator insists on such control rights, a startup should get to know and staying aligned with the key corporate decision makers and stakeholders.
(3) Corporate sponsorship may drive away venture capital funding
If you do choose to join a corporate incubator, don’t be surprised if you don’t have too many venture capitalists knocking on your door at the end. While VCs won’t necessarily be bothered by the “selling out” aspect of corporate sponsorship, they will be very concerned about having to deal with XYZ conglomerate as a significant investor not only with a sizeable equity stake but also potentially pro-rata rights and big city corporate lawyers to enforce all the initial investor rights agreed to by the start-up. Even if VCs can get over having to deal with the corporate sponsor, many will be concerned with whether the management team has that magical start-up wherewithal that makes them worth investing in. VCs often view companies in corporate incubators as being hand-held and as a result may not have learned the hard lessons necessary to run and scale a successful business.
Joining a corporate incubator or accelerator can be one the best steps a young and potentially successful company can take and should be given serious thought if such an offer should present itself. It is important, however, to understand the risks of doing so and what it can mean for your company’s brand, image and future opportunities as it starts to take-off. Finally, if you do choose to join a corporate incubator, always always always have a well thought out Plan B in your back pocket as large companies are known for pulling the plug on such corporate programs without much notice even with the slightest downturn in quarterly earnings.