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The 10 most innovative joint ventures of 2021

Here’s why these partnerships proved greater than the sum of their parts.

The 10 most innovative joint ventures of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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Innovation is a team sport. That is certainly true within companies, but it’s also the case when two organizations partner up to do something novel. For the first time, we decided to recognize the most compelling new joint ventures, taking an expansive view of the concept to include strategic, one-off collaborations, civic-minded public-private initiatives, and new businesses born out of opportunity.

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1. Kantaro Biosciences

For developing one of the first COVID-19 antibody testing kits for researchers

Mount Sinai Health System, the New York-based network of more than a dozen hospitals and medical research and education centers, partnered with RenalytixAI, a company that specializes in diagnostic testing, to form Kantaro Biosciences, seeing a need for a new class of diagnostic tests in the wake of COVID-19. In August 2020, the venture created COVID-SeroIndex, the first COVID-19 antibody testing kit made for research purposes. Soon after, Kantaro received regulatory approvals in the U.S. and Europe for a clinical version of the kit, COVID-SeroKlir. Developed in New York City during a period when the region was considered to be at the epicenter of the pandemic, the technology of the test has been used more than 120,000 times and it uses two viral antigens to reduce the incidences of false positives. It also doesn’t require specialized equipment. Even with the subsequent approval of several vaccines, the need for a deeper understanding of COVID-19—how long its antibodies last, how understanding them can affect treatment and therapeutics—and having a company in place to develop and scale up a test for the next health crisis is more necessary than ever.

2. Crocs

For stepping into quirky collaborations with KFC, Post Malone, the Grateful Dead, and more

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Any brand that can collaborate with both Peeps, the sugar-coated marshmallow treat, and Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican rapper and songwriter, has range. The footwear giant may well have had a moment in 2020 as people embraced comfort from head to toe, but Crocs’s deft and strategic brand partnerships elevated it in consumers’ minds and helped drive sales. The company’s partners in 2020 included Post Malone, Vera Bradley, streetwear mavens Chinatown Market, the Chinese actress Yang Mi, The Grateful Dead, and yes, of course, KFC. Each of these relationships pushed Crocs to reinvent its foam resin shoes in new ways, from making it glow-in-the-dark (Bad Bunny) to adding Jibbitz—the charms that can personalize each shoe—with a fried-chicken scent. They also spoke both to Crocs enthusiasts while at the same time reintroducing the brand to different consumers through these affiliations. The KFC collab, for example, drove almost 5.8 billion free media impressions. Combined with Crocs’s free pair for healthcare initiative amid the COVID-19 crisis, the company’s mastery of the pairing boosted sales 15.7% in the third quarter of 2020 compared with the year earlier.

3. Microsoft and SAS

For building an emergency response system that functions during (and before) disasters

The venerable data analytics software company SAS partnered with Microsoft Azure in February 2020 to create a response system for natural disasters, including flooding from hurricanes. The project specifically set its sights on Cary, North Carolina, where SAS is headquartered, using Azure’s internet of things solution to modernize the town’s flood response, automating tasks that used to require a more manual process of dispatching public services vehicles in response to a citizen’s all, and opening up new disaster solutions for other flood-prone areas, including nearby towns. Azure has allowed for communication among flood-prevention tools, such as rain gauges, while SAS’s analytic capabilities added real-time and historical data.

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4. Fiserv and USDA

For enabling grocery stores to accept SNAP electronic payments, right when it mattered

There’s a hunger crisis in America: According to U.S. Census Bureau surveys, more than 27 million U.S. residents report not having enough food to eat on a regular basis. Since the start of the pandemic, an additional 7 million Americans have been approved for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Many grocery stores, though, were not equipped to handle SNAP recipients’ electronic benefit transfer (EBT) payments, formerly known as “food stamps.” Working closely with SNAP and the Department of Agriculture, financial services technology company Fiserv devised a solution that helped expand the number of grocery stores (including ShopRite, Walmart, and TheFreshGrocer) accepting SNAP electronic payments from seven states to 40. Fiserv enabled an on-screen PIN pad so EBT users could meet the requirement of verifying their transactions in e-commerce, and the creation made the company the first to facilitate online EBT payments. In July 2020, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, American grocers processed 3.5 million SNAP EBT payments, three times the number processed just two months prior.

5. Cronos Group and Ginkgo Bioworks

For blazing new trails with CBGA, a fermented (and less cost-intensive) cannabinoid

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The two-year-old joint venture between Cronos, a leading Canadian cannabinoid company and the first cannabis stock to trade on a U.S. exchange, and Ginkgo Bioworks, an American biotech firm, led to a significant breakthrough last spring when the companies successfully fermented a targeted cannabinoid: CBGA. The patent-pending process enables the extraction of cannabis derivatives at higher purities and greater scale, potentially eliminating cost barriers that have prevented commercial cannabis products from competing in price with illicit, unregulated versions. More precise control over cannabis derivatives will also enable the development of a wider range of commercial products for a global market that is projected to reach nearly $100 billion by the end of 2026.

6. Ventec Life Systems and General Motors

For breathing life into rapid-scale manufacturing with much needed ventilators

Ventec Life Systems was a small company based in Bothell, Washington, producing state-of-the-art ventilators when the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was detected just north of Seattle. The accelerating national health crisis was compounded by a severe shortage of ventilators, and to meet the urgent need Ventec executives knew they’d need a powerful partner to scale up from its production rate of 150 multi-function ventilators, the FDA-approved VOCSN, which combines five devices into a single portable unit: ventilator, oxygen concentrator, cough assist, suction pump, nebulizer. The company partnered with General Motors, modifying a production facility in Indiana and training hundreds of employees. Within a month, the joint entity was delivering the first of 30,000 ventilators ordered by the federal government, and by June monthly production of VOCSN increased from 150 to more than 10,000.

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7. PwC and AXS Lab

For embarking on a digital design sprint that improved accessibility for millions

When AXS Lab, a nonprofit that works to promote accessibility and inclusion through media and technology, wanted to help people rate and discover the accessibility of public facilities from public transit to grocery stores, it first built the crowdsourced app on top of Google Maps. But AXS’s goal of greater accessibility for anyone living with mobility issues was thwarted by the limitations of its initial design, as many users found it difficult to navigate. Working with PwC, which had a preexisting relationship with AXS and its founder Alex DaSilva, AXS and the consulting giant undertook a user-centric strategy and design sprint that PwC calls BXT Works: Product to relaunch AXS Map. The revitalized map soft launched in May 2020, and despite the quarantine in the wake of COVID-19, reviews and searches have increased as well as donations. More than 13 million people have better information about the services designed to serve them best, and businesses are learning more about how they can improve to be more inclusive and deliver more equity for people with mobility challenges.

8. Nascar and iRacing

For speeding to serve fans with a virtual series when sports had to hit the brakes

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Nascar, which halted racing with the onset of the pandemic, quickly turned to the online iRacing motor esports program to produce a simulated version of its race schedule. The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series replicated the tracks and races that had to be canceled, starting March 15 with a virtual version of the race that had been scheduled for Atlanta Motor Speedway, featuring Nascar drivers logging into iRacing’s system, using a steering wheel and pedals, and enlisting their crew’s support with pit-stop strategy. By March 22, the series was up on TV, on Fox Sports 1, generating record ratings for esports (over 900,000 viewers for the 90-minute program) and satiating fans until live racing could return on May 17. The partnership was so successful that Nascar and iRacing are coming back this year for a 10-race series that’ll air on FS1 and NBC and that’s designed to complement the real-world racing schedule.

9. Rimowa and Dior

For for adding swagger to luggage and increasing brand engagement

Rimowa is a perennially cool luxury luggage company with over 120 years of history. But amid its recent cultural currency as suitcases have become statement pieces in the wake of direct-to-consumer competition, Rimowa has seen an opportunity to expand its brand and the way consumers perceive it. To that end, last October the company partnered with Dior Men’s Artistic Director Kim Jones on a capsule collection between Rimowa and Dior. The limited-edition collection included a hand case, a cross-body case, and spins on classic Rimowa cabin suitcases and trunks. The items were unmistakably Rimowa while adding some Dior swagger. The collab dovetailed with a broader Rimowa effort to expand into everyday lifestyle products such as iPhone cases, transforming an anonymous—and often ugly—staple into a dazzling statement. Together, these efforts helped to push Rimowa beyond its roots while still rooting its brand in the joy of travel, even if that bliss has been temporarily forestalled. Fans noticed: In the social media rollout of the collaboration, Rimowa and Dior noticed that their interactions doubled.

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10. RenewAge Energy Solutions and Loop

For installing EV charging stations at commercial buildings, with no up-front cost

RenewAge, a sustainable and energy-efficient construction company, partnered with Loop, an electric-vehicle charging company, to install electric-vehicle-charging stations in front of commercial buildings for no upfront cost. The joint venture has already led to 3,000 new e-charging stations, with a target of 10,000  by the end of 2021. Thus far, the new chargers are mostly centered around car-centric—and electric-vehicle-friendly—Los Angeles, and RenewAge estimates that they have created $50 million in energy and operational cost savings for its real-estate partners.