It can be difficult for big companies to remain innovative. Particularly 11,000 employee, $19 billion-valued, 42 year old companies like CA Technologies.
Innovation within the software giant used to happen 'organically'. More often than not, great ideas and products were simply acquired. Since 2010 CA has bought more than 20 companies.
Two years ago, the company established an initiative to help nurture good ideas that came from the inside: an internal start-up accelerator program – dubbed the ‘the corporate Shark Tank’ by employees.
Now, one of the accelerator’s start-ups – KnowThings.io – is about to release its first paid for product, which has at its heart research from Swinburne University and the University of Melbourne.
Although the right culture and general executive approval can aid innovation – take Google's famous 20 per cent rule (which has since been abandoned) – co-founder of CA’s accelerator, the company’s CTO Otto Berkes sought a repeatable pipeline, an “orchestrated and intentional approach”.
Anyone in the company can enter, by coming to a program meeting with a one-page lean canvas of their idea. They then need to pitch the concept to a panel of senior CA executives.
“They have an open pitching, so you put together a lean canvas. Basically you get 15 minutes to pitch, you put together an idea. They ask you questions for about 15 minutes then a decision is made for you to very quickly, as to whether they want you to proceed,” says KnowThings founder Anand ‘AK’ Kameswaran.
“It’s a panel of judges, they ask you questions, you’ve got to convince some of the smartest, most distinguished engineers at CA that you’ve got a good plan to go forward. In my case they liked it,” he adds.
If successful – like AK was – projects enter a Seed One phase where they are required to prove the problem exists and what people are saying about it, by interviewing at least 50 potential customers.
“You do this over the course of a few months, very quick, very rapid, by going out and talking with customers, prospective customers, collecting data,” AK says.
During Seed Two, they focus on proving their solution fits the problem with rapid pivots to keep them on course.
Key to the success of the accelerator is the fact employees are permitted to dedicate their full-time to the effort and their positions are held open in the meantime: a concept known as Incubation Rotation. Salaries are funded by the office of the CTO.
AK was a principle product manager within CA’s service virtualisation team when he put together the pitch. He now has a “extremely different” job as head of KnowThings. His old job remains open to him should things not work out.
“Meanwhile I know the lights are going to be on and I’m going to get paid so these are really good benefits,” he adds. “They make it kind of easy for us to take a risk for a while to drive that innovation and there’s certain protections in place for us. “
If they continue to show promise, projects advance to Startup Series A where they build a minimum viable product, recruiting a team of both CA colleagues and external hires.
“It’s largely up to me to recruit and generate the right atmosphere and excitement and then CA smooths things over at the corporate level so the right team members can join if there’s a compelling reason to,” AK adds.
Startup Series B focuses on solution-product fit and Startup Series C concludes with product-market fit.
KnowThings is due to make a paid-for version of its product generally available in a matter of weeks.
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