March 26, 2019 ·  3 min

From Entrepreneur to Corporate Innovator

Dan Toma is an innovation practitioner who doesn’t define himself as a consultant. Dan started out as a start-up entrepreneur with a couple of companies of his own; then he worked with a few startups and accelerators. Dan started getting more interested in corporate innovation, at first out of curiosity. He found it fascinating that people who don’t have any money are able to create amazing products that people like, while the people who have ample funding are not able to do so. It seemed paradoxical to him how organizations striving for liquidity are being more innovative than organizations that have a lot of financial resources at their disposal.

Dan started getting more and more involved with this topic, got a job with a major company in Europe and saw with his own eyes the difference between start-up and corporation culture. Dan says he was really excited to work in this new arena but, at the same time, it was really frustrating to face so many challenges and roadblocks. He started to believe there has to be a better way of doing things. With his two co- authors (Esther E. Gons and Tendayi Viki),   he wrote “The Corporate Startup,” in which they report that, even while working in different industries and locations, they encountered the same questions and difficulties.  

Dan is proud of the work he has done with corporations. But one project he is really proud of is not a corporate innovation per se.  In 2015-2016 he was working in South East Asia for the government of Vietnam and helped to develop a national innovation ecosystem including an accelerator program. Part of the project included taking all the lessons they learned and exporting them to neighboring Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Corporate life insurance

The way Dan sees corporate innovation is that of a life insurance for a corporation. Without innovation, a corporation cannot exist. It will not be able to survive in the future. In much the same way as you would pay a monthly premium for life or health insurance as an individual, so do corporations need to budget for innovation. If you spend on innovation, you have the option to adapt and grow, although you may not necessarily need it. However, if you are not spending on innovation, you have no way of growing. In today’s disruptive environment, Dan finds it shortsighted not to invest in innovation. Even if you don’t want to capitalize on those options created by the innovation department, you still have them in case something goes south and you can pretty much try to utilize those existing new ideas that you’ve created.

The Innovation Web

Corporate innovation is not a structured list but a web of challenges influencing each other. One of them is definitely culture. A certain corporate culture instills in people the fear of trying out new things – it’s all inherited in the culture. Another thread is Human Resources. The HR department keeps hiring people that are really good at following directions, when you actually need people who are breaking out, trying to find and do new things. Budgeting is another big issue  – it’s crucial how you structure the budget for innovation.  Another aspect of this web is how to measure innovation.

Although there are many differences in challenges and strengths among countries or industries, you can see the same issues hounding them. In some organizations they might find it hard to practice ideation, while in others there might be an over-regulated environment. But it all boils down to the same thing: lack of incentive to innovate.

The downfall of the corporate accelerator

Back in 2014-2015 corporations were really happy to invest in corporate accelerator programs. Dan believes we are starting to see the downfall of such programs. In fact, a lot of corporations are now moving away from the idea of “et’s build a lab and the innovation will happen,” which he believes is a step in the right direction.

No silver bullet

The other new trend Dan keeps seeing is that many corporations are now moving into start-up collaborations. They say, “Well, we can’t create new ideas in our labs, so let’s just choose to collaborate with startups.” This is happening in many different companies throughout Europe but he doesn’t know if this is good or bad or where it’s going to end up.

Dan believes this start-up approach is still not going to solve the problems of corporate innovation mainly because corporate leaders should stop having a silver bullet approach to sparking innovation. They think: “The silver bullet is called our accelerator,”, or “Thr silver bullet is called startup collaboration.”. No, there are a lot of things that you need to do in order to become innovative. Just doing one is not going to help.

Dan started getting more and more involved with this topic, got a job with a major company in Europe and saw with his own eyes the difference between start-up and corporation culture. Dan says he was really excited to work in this new arena but, at the same time, it was really frustrating to face so many challenges and