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Can corporate explorers save companies from the startup threat?

Corporate explorers are helping corporations step out of the shadow of startups.

Can corporate explorers save companies from the startup threat?
[Photo credits: dragonstock / Adobe Stock]

In September, one of the founders of Nest, Yoky Matsuoka, unveiled her latest project, Yohana. Matsuoka had been in stealth mode for over two years building Yohana as a concierge service targeted at working mothers. She describes it as a ‘wellness service’ that combines the power of AI with extraordinary levels of customer service to help ‘families find more balance.’ It is what we would expect of Matsuoka, a bona fide Silicon Valley legend and serial entrepreneur, who has also spent time at Google and Apple.

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The twist is that this is no venture-backed startup, this is a new corporate venture from Yo Labs, the innovation unit of Panasonic. Matsuoka is not an entrepreneur; she is a corporate explorer—someone who chooses to build new, disruptive businesses inside existing corporations. She is not alone. Corporate explorers are a growing band of innovators, operating from within large firms.

Krisztian Kurtisz’s job at the European insurance company UNIQA used to be running the company’s operations in Hungary. Then, he saw the potential to create an entirely new insurance service based on the principles of the music service Spotify. His business, Cherrisk, has scaled across Hungary and has now launched in Germany.

Conventional wisdom is that corporations should not even try to take the lead on disruptive innovation. Companies that grow established on the profits of a developed business model cannot make new and surprising moves. They are too covetous of their profits to risk pursuing unproven ideas, so, while they are willing to entertain good ideas, they rarely invest enough to see them prosper.

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Corporate explorers are turning this logic on its head. They have chosen to take their innovations down a corporate route, rather than using venture capital. Why? There are several reasons, and the encouraging thing is that all of them can be replicated by other firms.

The first is simply that digital technologies allow corporations to experiment with new business models faster. It used to be that you had to convince a reluctant IT organization to let you try new technologies or wait until a hiring chit was available from HR. Now, it is relatively simple to access machine learning and AI capabilities via the cloud. This sets more corporate managers free, just as much as it enables startups.

That widens the aperture of possibilities, allowing managers to conceive of services that build on the corporation’s existing assets. Take Kevin Carlin, a corporate explorer at technology firm Analog Devices. He has been able to connect the firm’s traditional highly sensitive measurement products to Cloud-based analytics to create entirely new services. This means they can offer manufacturers services to prevent unplanned downtime on the production line or help airlines detect faults in jet engines just by analyzing the sound that they make.

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Matsuoka, Kurtisz, and Carlin are figuring out how to use the advantages of the corporation––its existing assets––to build new businesses. These assets typically fall into one of four categories:

  • Capital: Matsuoka says that Panasonic provided ‘all the resources’ for Yohana.
  • Customers: Although Carlin is selling to a new buyer, he can still leverage Analog Devices’ reputation for delivering reliable, market-leading innovation, something startups do not have.
  • Capabilities: UNIQA had the technical and legal ability to issue insurance products, helping Kurtisz get to market faster.
  • Capacity: All three can scale faster as a part of larger firms because they do not need to build out manufacturing or back-office support.

Getting access to these assets in the core business is one of the most difficult aspects of the corporate explorer’s role. They must persuade colleagues leading the core business, who are often senior to them, that it is in their interests to share with a new, unproven venture. In the choppy water of organizational politics, this can be a hard ask. A corporate explorer’s request for access to a sales team or ability to leverage manufacturing to support a pilot project can seem like an irritating distraction. Even if you have a license from senior leadership to build a new venture, there are only so many times a corporate explorer can use the ‘CEO card’ when asking for help. It takes more than formal authority to get things done.

That’s why the best corporate explorers work the social system of the organization. They are social animals. They find ways to leverage what they already have and use relationships in the organization to negotiate access. That’s why most successful corporate explorers are either insiders who already have a strong social network in the company to draw on––like Kurtisz and Carlin––or outsiders with great sensitivity to the need to develop relationships with legacy executives––like Matsuoka. This is one of the ways they differ from more individualistic entrepreneurs.

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There is a lot more to leading corporate innovation than the inspired leadership of people like Matsuoka, Kurtisz, and Carlin. You need corporate leaders with an ambition for transformative innovation and a willingness to separate it out from the day-to-day business. You also need good innovation practices that can help ideate, incubate, and scale new ventures. However, these stories of radical corporate innovation all start with an individual corporate explorer who has an insight into what the world needs and the commitment to see this vision through to success.

Corporate explorers are helping corporations step out of the shadow of startups and find a way to bring breakthrough ideas to market on their own. Matsuoka says Yohana is about freeing women from domestic tasks. Perhaps corporate explorers are doing the same for corporations––helping them break free from their exclusive focus on the now so they are ready to capture the possibilities of the future.


Andy Binns writes on innovation and change. His book, Corporate Explorer, is published in February 2022. He is a Director of Change Logic.

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