Executive Summary

For many people, an initial look back through the recent history of innovation is quite enlightening, and perhaps disappointingly limited. In the most recent era of innovation, only Apple springs to mind as a leader in the area of corporate innovation. However, on taking a closer look, one can see that, while Apple may be a standard-bearer, it is no anomaly. In fact, even for large corporations that are typically seen as unable to embrace or enact true innovation, this new era of innovation may be the ripest of all — for those who are ready to embrace it.

The corporate innovation revolution spurred by venture capitalists decades ago has created prime conditions in which scale enables big companies to shift from shackling innovation to unleashing it. Three trends are behind this shift: 

  1. The ease of innovation and its decreasing cost mean that start-ups now face the same short-term pressures that have constrained corporate innovation at large companies. 
  2. Taking a page from start-up strategy, large companies are embracing open innovation and integrating entrepreneurial behaviors with their existing capabilities. 
  3. Innovation increasingly involves creating business models that tap big companies’ unique strengths.

In this context, entrepreneurial individuals, whom the author calls “catalysts,” are working with corporations’ resources, scale, and growing agility to develop solutions to global challenges. In this article, also seen in Harvard Business Review, Scott D. Anthony breaks down the new “corporate garage,” including a brief history of innovation, and analysis of four successful corporate innovation catalysts. These four corporate catalysts and their stories are as follows: 

Keyne Monson, at Medtronic, spurred the creation of a program called Healthy Heart for All, which seeks to bring life-saving cardiac diagnostic services and technology to hundreds of thousands of Indians who desperately need it. Thousands of people have been screen and dozens of pacemakers implanted, with plans in place to scale up across India and other emerging markets.

Yuri Jain, at Unilever, sought and found a scalable solution to purifying drinking water–Pureit, a portable system that provides safe water at a very low cost — just half a cent per liter. Millions of units have been sold throughout India, with a goal to provide clean water to over 500 million people.

Nick Musyoka, at Syngenta, devised a program called Uwezo (Swahili for “capability”), which uses the sachet distribution model to provide smallholding farmers with affordable, premeasured packages of crop protection chemical and seeds, as well as education and training to support and drive adoption by smallholders. Sales in Kenya surpassed $6 million and plans are in place to expand to other African and Asian countries.

Colin Harrison, at IBM, was instrumental in developing the company’s Smarter Cities program, which offers bundled technological infrastructure and related services to help cities save money and improve lives through more efficient management of energy, water, traffic, parking, public transit, and crime. Such a project in Stockholm reduced carbon emissions by 17%, and reduced traffic delays by 50%. Similar projects have been successfully carried out in at least seven other cities.

This article covers each of these in-depth, as well as the main insights and takeaways from each corporate innovation expert. It makes the case for the idea that corporate innovation is not reserved solely for entrepreneurs in industry-shifting start-ups, but that larger corporations can still break new ground through large-scale corporate innovation, and sets the scene for corporate innovation in your organization.

Read the full article at HBR.