5 Things we learned from working with Startups and Corporations

Guest Author
April 11 2019

At the heart of the Kickstart program lies facilitating the collaboration between corporations and startups and helping them to realize the promise of these partnerships. In 2019, Kickstart will bring promising entrepreneurs to Zurich for the fourth time, where they will work together with established partners aiming at launching joint projects and partnerships. But how does collaboration between such different parties work? Which are success factors and challenges and how can they be addressed? Dr. Jennifer Sparr and Prof. Dr. Gudela Grote from ETH Zurich have investigated these questions with us. Here are 5 practical insights from a research perspective:

1 Seeking for feedback and reflecting your team performance is key. 

Teams should make feedback-seeking and reflection a regular habit – not only during a program such as Kickstart, but always! Research shows that these practices help to improve creativity, learnings and performance of individuals and teams.

2 Building your relationship on respect, fairness, trust and honest interest in collaboration is crucial. 

In order to establish a successful and trustful collaboration, do agree on clear goals and obligations in a participative and cooperative way! Do agree on transparent rules and processes and practice an open communication on eye-level.

3 Tensions exist – and actually, this is good news! 

Corporations and large organizations experience tensions when it comes to working with startups: How to focus on their current needs and at the same time create room for serendipity? How to find an optimal cost-benefit ratio? How to balance stability and flexibility? How to cooperate with competitors?

Why is this good news? If handled well, tensions create learning and productive change as for example in several organizations, who have started to work on their processes and structures in order to become more flexible and to make collaboration with startups easier. Further, understanding the multi-level goals large organizations have and the different time horizons of these goals, can be helpful when it comes to accepting and balancing certain tensions. For example, when considering the cost-benefit balance, uncertain short-term investments into PoCs may balance well with the long term change in the organization towards an innovation culture which is stimulated by the exchange with the startups. 

4 Emphasize the benefit of giving.

What we learned from the large organizations was that a helpful mindset for collaborating with startups is to emphasize the benefit of giving. They pointed out that helping the startups and learning from them is a success, even if the collaboration with a startup did not necessarily involve any immediate monetary benefits for them. The collaboration is beneficiary in terms of cultural development, exposure to the entrepreneurial spirit of the startup world and the image of the organization internally as well as in public. So the advice would be to make giving a priority while making sure to capitalize on the valuable returns at different levels.

5 Taking part in Kickstart is a roller coaster ride.

Be prepared for an adventure! During the program, the participating entrepreneurs had a whole range of strong feelings: from excitement, inspiration and determination over distress and nervousness to scare. On average, positive emotions like excitement, inspiration and determination were quite frequent throughout the program – which is good, because from literature we know that positive emotions positively influence decisions, intentions and the evaluation of opportunities.

However, also negative emotions are an important source of information that needs to be used wisely. The Kickstart program with its impulses, support structures and social events aims to foster both: nursing the positive emotions and making good use of the more negative ones for learning.  

The learnings and suggestions above are based on scientific interviews and surveys with the 2018 startups and partners. Find out more: Collaboration between Startups and Organizations in the Kickstart Program 2018

These findings also entered the academic world already: In August, the ETH team will attend the Annual Academy of Management Meeting 2019 in Boston with a talk based on their research insights with Kickstart. In case you’re interested in their talk at this major management conference, get in touch with Jennifer (jsparr(at)ethz.ch) to get a copy of their abstract “Balancing Tensions in Open Innovation”.

More learnings regarding the collaboration between startups and established organizations can be found in the book “Kickstarting Collaboration” that was published together with digitalswitzerland. The research team of ETH Zurich will continue their work with the 2019 batch.

ETH Zurich Research Team: 
Dr. Jennifer Sparr, Nora Varesco Kager & Prof. Dr. Gudela Grote

Kickstart Team: 
Dr. Christoph Birkholz & Katka Letzing

Fotos: Anja Wurm / Ringier