29 August 2017

Scouting the globe for technology's Messi

by Glenn Bijvoets (Ideation & Venturing at Eneco Smart Energy) and Nienke Benders (Technology Consultant at Venture IQ)

Five-time world player of the year Lionel Messi is a graduate of Barcelona's soccer academy. But he was born and raised on a different continent. In a different hemisphere, even. Thirteen-year-old 'Leo' was picked up by the Spanish club's global scouting network and invited to travel from Argentina to hone his skills in Europe.

If you want the best, it's no good sitting at your desk and waiting for the best to coming knocking at your door. You've got to go out and look. Proactive scouting is what every great sports team does. And, like every great sports team, corporates need to scout, not only for talent, but also especially for technology. In this article, we offer a few thoughts on what constitutes good technology scouting, based on our experience of scouting start-ups for Eneco.

For a large corporate, scouting is essential for survival
No one really knows what the future will be like, but you can be sure it's going to feature technologies we don't have today. Technologies that are being developed right now on university campuses and in accelerators all around the world. It's vital for a forward-thinking corporate to identify the enterprises that are doing the development work and capable of contributing to the transition process. And ultimately to find the upcoming partner companies that fit their strategic aims.

Don't take a snapshot – keep the camera rolling
First of all, make sure your technology scouting efforts are done on a continuous basis. Nothing is as changeable as the start-up world: potential partners you identified last year might not be in existence any more, and new leads might have come up.

Scouting two or even three distinct horizons helps you sharpen your focus. First there's the short to medium-term horizon. Then there's the long-term development and trend horizons. First-horizon scouting involves selecting partners to exploit a predefined market opportunity. Second and third-horizon scouting delivers a broad picture of the market, enabling you to understand what's going to be happening further down the road and shape your policies accordingly.

Scouting the first horizon enables you to seed alliances with start-ups and scale-ups and get actively involved. However, that has to be framed by awareness of what's happening in the long term, even if what you see on the second and third horizons is too far off for a corporate to get involved in. If you don't know enough about the second and third horizons, it's very hard to make sound decisions about the near future, because you lack a sense of where you're headed.

In-house or outsourced scouting?
You can do your scouting yourself, or you can work with an external scouting service provider like Venture IQ. The advantage of the second option is that you can focus on identifying what you are looking for, while leveraging the search skills, know-how, and broader resources of the service provider. That way, you're likely to generate leads quicker and more continuously. It's also a flexible approach: internal capacity is freed up because the corporate's personnel can focus on the most promising leads. However, if you make use of an external scouting party, make sure you establish a long-term relationship. It takes time to get to know each other and familiarise the service provider with your goals, scope and background.

Fear of missing out can be dangerous: scoping needs to be strict but iterative
Scoping is vital for developing a precise understanding of what you want and need in order to reach your strategic goals. The temptation to define the scope widely for fear of missing something good has to be resisted. At the same time, you need a picture of the landscape within your theme. And the accuracy of that picture isn't helped by excluding enterprises that don't exactly fit within it. Steering a path between the twin hazards of overly wide scoping and overly narrow scoping calls for an iterative process.

A defined set of search criteria is built through interaction between experts and analysts. The process is aided by discussing a few 'specimen' companies to see whether they fit the strategic rationale. Such sampling is valuable for revealing implicit criteria and technical requirements, thus introducing scoping boundaries that might otherwise have been overlooked. The process helps you to structure your thoughts and requirements, and to clarify your strategic planning.

With the scope defined, the search phase can start
Data volume is often the key to success: it's important to scout through a large number of different sources. General start-up databases have inherent limitations that can be avoided by using patent and company website (URL) data. You then get a more complete picture of the specific sector or theme, which isn't restricted to relatively established and 'findable' enterprises. The painstaking work of sifting through large volumes of data consistently pays off by revealing hidden gems of great potential value to the searcher.

Throughout the search process, the corporate's experts and business people need to be kept in the picture. Using a collaboration platform, such as Venture IQ's Catalist, they have continuous access to details of the leads identified so far, complete with information about why each lead is considered promising. Experts in the relevant field can also provide feedback, enabling further refinement of the search. The adaptability of iterative searching consistently yields rewarding outcomes.

Diving deep to find the pearls
The search phase results in the identification of a long list of leads, it's important to drill down this list to a shortlist of five or ten companies. Following a blind-spot check, the shortlisted companies can be further researched in phase three: the deep-dive analysis.

It's the deep dive that provides insight into the maturity, commercial status, technical capabilities and strategic compatibility of the leads. Acquiring this kind of detail earlier isn't efficient, because a lot of time it gets wasted researching enterprises that are destined to get rejected on the basis of other, more accessible, criteria. While the process starts with information from the public domain, true insight into the plans, visions and skill-sets of your leads can only be obtained by direct contact.

During the contact phase, it's important to be respectful to start-ups. It's hard enough building a company, without outsiders wasting your time. A technology scout therefore needs to be decisive and open with the businesses they contact, and tell them quickly if they aren't a match.

Dating before you marry
Corporates investing in start-ups is very much in vogue at the moment, even though other forms of partnership may be more effective. These include a partnership, a joint pilot or acting as a launching customer. The only criterion is that the arrangement helps both the corporate and the start-up to realise their strategic goals. In some cases, the process ends with no formal tie-in at all: the two sides simply share information and ideas. There's nothing wrong with that, because it still enhances insight into the trends shaping your market. In whatever form, partnerships require resources from both sides, and proactive technology scouting maximises the likelihood of picking the right partner.

Partnering is sometimes the preferred choice because it's the most effective, scalable and sustainable first step towards boosting your innovation agenda. Unlike direct investment, you don't need a specialist team, you can easily back out, you build up knowledge in the core of the organisation and you can manage multiple partnerships at the same time. Meanwhile the start-up gets invaluable access to the corporate's pool of experience. Another benefit of a partnership is that the start-up is free to work with other companies.

In other cases, venturing is more appropriate because it provides the same benefits as partnering, while also fulfilling the start-up's capital needs. Also, both parties have a bigger stake in making the relationship a success.

Nothing is also something
At the end of the day, technology scouting is like scientific research: finding nothing is a result as well. And you haven't failed if the results you get have no short-term commercial value. Because the real prizes are enhanced market intelligence and real-time insight into the developments taking shape in the technology landscape. At the very least you have a report explaining why you've decided not to go in a particular direction, reinforcing confidence in the decision to take a different path.

Adopting that philosophy and embracing technology scouting as a continuous process can be quite challenging for a corporate, especially when there are no measurable outcomes in the short term.

We plan to write more about our approach to technology scouting, and we'd be very interested to hear what you'd like to read about! Please let us know in the comments or shoot us an e-mail at glenn.bijvoets@eneco.com or nienke@ventureiq.nl.