Big biz should stop treating startups like zoo animals, research park chief says

This article originally appeared in Blue Sky Innovation here.

Many corporations are all show when it comes to working with startups, treating meetings with innovators as field trips, Laura Frerichs said.

“There are companies that want to touch the entrepreneurs — they want to go visit the zoo, and see all the zoo animals, then walk away and feel entrepreneurial because they’ve had that entrepreneurial experience,” said Laura Frerichs, director of Research Park and Economic Development at University of Illinois. She made the comments Wednesday on a panel during the ITA Chicago Tech Summit at the Chicago Historical Society

Those quick drive-bys are a far cry from the hard work she said can be needed to partner with a startup. For example, Frerichs said a large insurance company has, for years, approached entrepreneurs but failed to do deals.

“They cannot figure out a way to get through some of those hurdles. It’s not that they don’t see the opportunity,” she said. “They just have the culture of which if they don’t 100 percent own the I.P., they can’t see where the value is for them.”

The panel’s moderator, TechNexus founder Terry Howerton, said he was familiar with the overtures of the insurer — and that a large bank, too, has gained a reputation for sponsoring events that target entrepreneurs but not actually working with startups.

He suggested startups who are shunned by large corporations keep in mind that others will come along.

“The truth is there’s lots of fish in the sea,” he said. “Don’t waste your time trying to sell uphill into a corporation that has not collaborated with you.”

Piloting a program with a corporation can be a good way to form a relationship for a startup, panelists said, because it allows the startup to prove the value of its product and to learn what the larger operations need.

Pilot programs and connecting with a wide array of positions at a company is the best way to go for contact, said David Purdy, lead engineer at SwiftIQ.

“So many times you build a relationship with someone and they move on and you’re at ground zero,” he said. “Relying on one person to be your advocate at a giant corporation is a bad play. Your advocate needs to be your results.”

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