Open Innovation Veteran on Working with Startups and Using Exploration Teams

By Tyler Smith |  December 21, 2022

Even as open innovation has become a crucial part of the innovator’s toolkit, identifying the highest-potential partnerships and setting up pilots quickly can be a challenge.

As bonus content to our recent research report, Successful Startup Engagement and Corporate Venture Capital, we sat down with Maureen Rinkunas, formerly Director of Open Innovation at Corbion, a Dutch food ingredients supplier, to understand her approach to navigating the startup ecosystem, hear about what she calls “exploration teams,” and discuss the benefits of using accelerator programs.

Maureen Rinkunas

Best practices. One way of [thinking about] open innovation is who you know, and where you go. I think many of us develop strong ecosystems, and we connect with startups and other potential partners in that way. So it’s not that it’s a bad model. But our approach has really been about defining those strategic priorities… We’ve also spent a lot of time working with the business, using that “Where to play, how to win” framework, so that we walk away with really clear opportunity spaces where we want to grow. When you have that kind of vision, you’re able to think about scouting much more from that perspective: “Where can I find the best partners within that opportunity space?”

‘Exploration Teams’ can expedite the process. We’re actually using an approach that we call “exploration teams.” So tying into those opportunity spaces we’ve defined with the business, we stand up an exploration team that represents both business and technical stakeholders within that opportunity space. This way, they’re at the ready. When we’ve got something that’s interesting, we’re able to get feedback really early on.

And hopefully, then that trims the front end of that process, which can get unwieldy — “I’ve got to find the right people to weigh in.” I’ve been in other organizations, and sometimes we’ve had it feel like we had to do that in a bespoke way every time we met a startup. And so hopefully, with this kind of focus, we know, “OK, this is in this opportunity space, we activate this exploration team, and we get an answer back quickly.”

I think once the exploration team has done that initial vetting, and the decision’s made, we should figure out how to work with this startup and this partner. We put a venture team in place, and that venture team is the team that’s going to define, “How do we work together?” They’re really tasked with, “First, let’s define a pilot.” …

All the partnerships that we work on move into an incubator, so we have a flow for that venture team to take things to the incubator council and get the pilots approved quickly. And then if the pilot is successful, while that pilot’s going on, we’re able to have those discussions about, “What should the longer-term relationship look like? What are the tools we need to put in place to make it successful?” 

Build a team with different expertises. Our exploration teams, they’re usually about eight to 10 people because we want some diversity of opinion. We bring people who have deeper technical or business expertise in the opportunity space that we’re exploring, but we also invite some of our corporate scientists who have a nice generalist view of the market and the technology as well. And so that helps us have a rich discussion about partners, and we’re not knocking things out too early.

Then, when we get to the venture team, now we’re really saying, “Let’s get a lean, mean team and borrow a little bit from more of a corporate venture approach.” We tend to have a business lead, a technical lead, a lead from the open innovation team. And then, if necessary, pulling in someone from IP, someone from legal to get things done. But we want this team to really be able to negotiate quickly, so we don’t want necessarily everybody weighing in. 

Accelerators keep the vision at center stage. I think that accelerators have a really good place within that strategy that you can build out based on what opportunity space you’re looking at. Even at the base level, the value is [having a] view of where things are going, which is nice. If I take the time to go to a demo day, I’m at least walking away with a slice of what’s happening within [the accelerator’s] world. Most of the time, it’s a pretty collaborative space. And so I benefit a lot from even just getting out, meeting other people within the food and material space, and sharing what they’re seeing, where they’re looking.

Be specific to maximize productivity. We started very big picture with some themes of areas that we knew our businesses were interested in. And then we’re able to say what are the interesting, “How might we?” questions that start to define what we could do.

And we did some validation around what the market looked like and some of those opportunities. And so we eventually got down to areas where we really believe the company can grow. We believe that there should be players out there, who are also interested in growing in this space. And having enough direction around — in scope, out of scope — and some guide rails to drive that search… I feel like we went from some pretty broad themes into some really actionable areas, and part of my role on the open innovation in this process was to gut check them.

So as [other team members are] sort of talking, I’m looking at what we know is out there, what what the startup ecosystem looks like, and able to say, “Hey, we’ve collapsed too narrow, like you’re looking for a needle in the haystack, or this is going to be boiling the ocean. You’ve got to give me a little bit more in scope, out of scope and facilitate those discussions.”