Collected Advice: How Can Corporations Become a Magnet for High-Quality Startups?

By Scott Kirsner |  November 16, 2022

When corporates decide to launch any kind of startup engagement program, they often don’t devote enough attention to attracting high-quality startups. Many assume that their brand is so well known and respected that every promising startup globally will surely find out about their pitch competition or accelerator. But it doesn’t work that way. Many of the best entrepreneurs spend more time focusing on things like hiring, product-market fit, sales, and fundraising than they do scouring the web for an open innovation challenge being promoted for a short period of time by a Global 1000 company, or yet another accelerator.

What are the tactics that can help corporates attract the very best startups to a hackathon, accelerator, pitch competition, or open innovation challenge? We asked a group of 10 corporate leaders who have run these kinds of programs, and here’s what they said.

Public website, social media announcements, and public relationsSounds basic, but your program needs to build awareness in the digital world. Be ready to answer questions about your initiative and how it will help the startups that participate. (One resource mentioned that lists accelerators and other competitions for startups is the website
“WIFM?”What’s in it for me? Startups want to clearly understand the benefits of applying or entering. Will they be eligible for prize money? Get shelf space in your retail stores? Get access to space at your next trade show booth? Get mentorship and advice from your CEO? Lay it out.
Articulate your needs/focusRather than putting out a call for all logistics-related startups globally, be specific about technology areas you are interested in or business problems you’re trying to solve. That gives top entrepreneurs a sense that they may be part of a smaller consideration set — rather than a vast cattle call, with only a small chance of getting chosen.
Leverage personal networksIf your colleagues know people who work at startups; entrepreneurship programs at universities; or others who are active in the startup ecosystem, reach out for referrals to get help sharing your announcement.
Diverse teams at corporate attract diverse startups If the team in charge of running your startup engagement initiative is diverse, the initiative will be more likely to attract diverse startups. It’s vital to focus on attracting a diverse set of startups at the outset.
Connect with venture capital firms in your industryVenture capital firms can be a great source for well-vetted startups — even companies that the VC firm hasn’t yet put money into.
Attend eventsOften trade shows and conferences will have pavilions that feature startup; on-stage pitch competitions; entrepreneurs speaking on panels; or founders in attendance.
Host events of your ownHosting events of your own — whether online or in person— can be a way to show you’re serious; detail what you’re hoping to get from this initiative; and allow startups to get to know your company before applying. These events can take place in local startup hubs or coworking spaces; at your headquarters; or at conferences that attract startups.
Build relationships with other acceleratorsOther accelerator programs typically keep track of their alumni, as well as companies that may have applied but not admitted. Both groups may be relevant to your initiative. 
Foreign trade commissionsTrade groups from other countries often put together road shows of promising startups and bring them on visits to the US (and other countries.) 
University professors who teach entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship clubs, technology licensing officesA great source of startups being formed on campus; tech licensing offices tend to know about startups that are already up and running and may have raised some early funding.
Communicate with startups your company already works withIf your company is a customer of startups, or has alumni startups that have been part of earlier initiatives, ask them for referrals or for help spreading the word in their networks.
Startup databases like Pitchbook, CB Insights, SwitchPitch, CrunchbaseSearch based on relevant keywords, and screen for startups in the geography or stage that fits your initiative. Reach out individually to startups that seem to be a fit.
Create contentProduce blog posts, podcasts, infographics, or other content that help describe how your company views the future of your industry; why you’re connecting with startups; and the ways you’ll help them succeed.
CEO involvementYes, CEO involvement is the secret sauce for every initiative. But if the CEO is talking about your initiative — or even better, participating in it as a mentor or judge — that sends a strong positive signal about it being a high priority. One example: former Disney CEO Bob Iger served as a mentor to several startups that participated in the Disney Accelerator. 
Longevity and commitmentThe longer you’ve run your startup initiative, the more startups will become aware of it — and convinced that it’s here to stay, rather than a flash in the pan. You’ll also have alumni who can serve as references and “ambassadors” for it.