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I recently hosted a group of entrepreneurs from Latvia and Estonia at our Cambridge R&D centre. They were on a course, led by Professor Alan Barrell, that helped and encouraged them to learn from the Cambridge innovation ecosystem that we are proud to be part of. It was fascinating to hear their business stories and plans – they’re aiming to launch new products as diverse as fast-assembly roads to access remote locations and an e-commerce lingerie business. There is certainly a flourishing entrepreneurial culture in Latvia and Estonia!

This reminded me that a current theme amongst the corporate innovation community is the role of the start-up in driving innovation in global markets. Many big companies are looking to start-ups as a source of open innovation – they see the ‘start-up culture’ replacing the bureaucracy and endless meetings of large companies with smaller groups that are focused on creating new ideas and moving with almost incomprehensible agility.

Talking to our visiting entrepreneurs, they have talent and ideas in abundance but generally, compared with larger organisations, the most obvious difference is they don’t have access to the resources and experience they could otherwise use to accelerate their progress. This is a common challenge for start-ups and whilst I agree that ‘necessity can be the mother of invention’, generally speaking, a lack of resources results in delays or shortcuts that can devalue the opportunity. Having said that, there are many exceptions where success is due to the knowledge, networks and expertise of the founder and their team, usually gained from previous roles.

One of the things I like a lot about start-ups – and I have run several start-ups during my career – is that they create a mindset that focuses you on maximising the value created at every step, usually because you are funding progress with your second mortgage! This is an effective antidote to the usual enemies of innovation – the ‘because that’s the way we always do it’ approach and the ‘when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ mindset. Both stifle new ideas. In contrast, the start-up entrepreneur is looking for the most effective, fastest route to their desired outcomes and their eye is always on the end goal rather than the process.

What I believe is needed for great innovation is a combination of vision, expertise and resources in an environment and culture that applies them effectively for commercial gain. At CDP, we are different from many start-ups because we are larger and don’t focus on just one project. Our clients expect us to deliver innovation consistently across hundreds of projects each year, so we need to have a broader, more adaptable approach without falling into the pitfalls mentioned above. 

To do this we have created our Potential Realised innovation process as a sort of innovation template that we can adapt to each challenge. One of the issues faced by start-ups is bringing together all the skills needed to take a new idea to market. With limited funds this is hard to achieve and there is always pressure to minimise costs. Because we have projects at all stages of development, we have the luxury of specialist teams across the innovation journey. For example, having easy access to end users to identify their most valuable unmet needs and to test out new concepts quickly is crucial to optimise the business opportunity. This is hard to achieve without the specialist research expertise needed to do this thoroughly and interpret the feedback accurately. Another example is access to deep technical resources – for example, with digital opportunities, to develop competitive new products you need specialist user experience designers, sensor and data scientists, electronic and software engineers, and test labs to prototype and realise complex opportunities quickly, all of which we have at CDP but are difficult for start-ups to match.

But at the end of the day success is based on the entrepreneurial spirit that our friends from Latvia expressed so enthusiastically and clearly. To realise this in our organisation we encourage our project leaders to be steered by our clients’ purposes and aims, to ensure everything we do is aligned to their success rather than our processes. We empower our teams to work together in project networks by breaking down our management and departmental structures – and we encourage an environment where everything is questioned by organising our company with a minimum of rules and constraints.

We wish our entrepreneurial visitors from Latvia and Estonia every success in the future and thank them for inspiring us once again.

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