Combining large corporations’ market reach with start-up innovation power

start-up innovation

Imec’s programme manager Sven De Cleyn explains how imec.istart helps boost start-up innovation in large corporation markets

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first-known use of the word ‘innovation’ dates back to the 15th century. Yet, while the concept has been in place for more than six centuries and has become part of our daily vocabulary, it is becoming increasingly challenging for companies to continue to innovate/reinvent themselves in an environment of start-up innovation.

Larger corporations mainly struggle with the fact that the innovation landscape is very much scattered, making it difficult for them to keep a close eye on innovative, emerging technologies that might enrich their product portfolios and provide them with a competitive advantage. At the other end of the spectrum, lots of promising start-ups find it difficult to translate their market potential into a first big customer win or strategic partnership.

To bridge the gap between those two worlds, imec is introducing its ‘Smart Brokerage’ initiative. Set up under the umbrella of the imec.istart business acceleration programme, the initiative aims at helping larger corporations and start-ups interact more easily, and create a mutual win-win.

Bridging the gap between large corporations and innovative start-ups

A smart broker is an organisation that bridges the gap between larger companies’ requirements and start-ups’ innovation capacity; a gap characterised by following mutual concerns:

  • Large companies do not want to contaminate their IPR or disclose confidential data in their search for partners.
  • They do not have the time to continuously scan the market for relevant start-ups in their domain.
  • Start-ups, on the other hand, are typically reluctant to share their ideas and advances with bigger companies.
  • Moreover, they lack the corporate contacts to translate their market potential into concrete business opportunities.

In such a setting, a smart broker can put in place the necessary (intellectual property) protection mechanisms and create a trusted environment in which both parties can discuss potential collaboration opportunities.

In general, smart brokers work along the following main principles:

  • They have a fully confidential relationship with the large corporation, governed by means of an NDA or another legally-binding contract.
  • They have insight into its strategic roadmaps or innovation plans.
  • This input is used to identify relevant start-ups that the company could partner with.
  • The smart broker helps the start-ups prepare a business case.
  • Finally, the smart broker presents the start-up proposals to the larger corporation; this can lead to a variety of collaboration types:

– Paid proof-of-concept/commercial deal;

– Joint business offering;

– Distributor/reseller type of deal;

– Licensing deal; and

– Any other type of mutually beneficial relationship.

Imec’s ‘Smart Brokerage’ approach: lightweight, lean & results-driven

Imec’s ‘Smart Brokerage’ initiative features a four-step approach that is lightweight, lean and results-driven:

  1. In the first phase, imec focuses on getting to know the corporate partner, its activities and its requirements.
  2. Building on those insights, imec proposes a longlist of start-ups it could partner with; an exercise during which imec calls upon its broad entrepreneurship ecosystem – ranging from the start-ups supported by the imec.istart business acceleration programme to iMacs portfolio of spin-offs, its EIT contacts and potentially even other (international) partners/sources.
  3. Together with representatives from the corporate partner’s various business lines, this long list then gets translated into a shortlist – featuring those start-ups that show the highest collaboration potential.
  4. Prior to the final (half-a-day) pitching event, imec specialists coach the shortlisted start-ups on the topic of successful deal pitching – after which the corporate partner decides with which start-up(s), to embark on a business journey (resulting in business discussions with the right corporate executives and the kick-off of proofs-of-concept).

Everybody wins

“We saw a clear need for this type of initiative – as to avoid that larger companies and start-ups continue to work on their respective islands; after all, by combining forces, they get so much stronger,” says Sven De Cleyn, programme manager of the imec.istart business acceleration programme. “The first cases we have gone through clearly show that imec’s role as smart broker makes everybody win.

“Our corporate partners, for instance, get in touch with a line-up of innovative start-ups they would not be able to easily find themselves. For the start-ups, this is a unique opportunity to talk to the business executives they have been longing to see; and they can learn from one another during the pitching sessions. Finally, from an imec perspective, we can help our start-ups with what they need the most – i.e. making deals and facing customers.”

Please note: this is a commercial profile


Sven De Cleyn

Programme manager, imec.istart


Tel: +32 474 29 76 94