February 18, 2020

The three things that kill corporate-startup partnerships

(And how to avoid them). Tanya Suarez reveals how she gets an 80% success rate at IoT Tribe.

Maija Palmer

5 min read

Tanya Suarez founded IoT Tribe in 2017 to provide deeptech companies and corporates with a way to meet and form partnerships. The accelerator takes 10 companies at a time on a three-month programme, the end goal of which is to get them a deal with a big company. Rolls Royce is one of the companies that taps into the IoT Tribe network for leads.

Three years later, Suarez says she has a roughly 80% success rate on the programme and, after taking more than 150 companies through it, she's learned to pinpoint (and avoid) some of the most common mistakes that can kill a startup-corporate collaboration. Here are her tips:

1) What is unique about the way that IoT Tribe works?

We help build technology ecosystems. At the heart of what we do are our acceleration programmes that bring together startups, corporates, academics and other organisations. We don’t take equity or charge the startups. Once they are in the Tribe, they are always part of the Tribe and we will continue to help and support them in any way we can.

Mistake 1: overpromising

We understand the founders and can see what they need to make a dent in the market but we also understand the corporates, how they work and what they need to get from any given engagement.

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2) How does the accelerator programme work?

We take on cohorts of eight to 10 startups that are market-ready. They may already have raised a small amount of money and come to us to hone their position in the market and raise further investment.

Our first step is to see where they are and what they need to get to the next stage. We kick off with a week of solid workshops and structured content that helps us really understand this.

Mistake 2: underestimating inputs

The next three months are about structuring content around the cohort needs, finding common ground — this bit is actually quite challenging — and providing content-driven opportunities for them to network and develop business relationships. The three-month intensive acceleration culminates in the Tech Games, a final event at which the startups pitch in front of our investor and corporate community.

We then have a less intensive three-month support programme where we tend to focus on helping them close investment and other leads.

At the moment, we have three hubs: the UK, based in South Yorkshire and linking into our London networks focusing on industrial tech, Singapore, focused on deeptech, and Madrid, centred on spacetech.

Mistake 3: losing your champion

As to success rates, typically, out of a cohort of 10, we will have two to three absolute stars, two failures and the rest will continue to build their businesses, slowly but surely. Not everyone should focus on scaling quickly.

3) When you bring startups and corporates together what are the most common mistakes you see being made by either side?

Typically mistakes arise from:

  1. Overpromising on what can be delivered: startups can find it difficult to say no to a corporate and can overstate what they are reasonably able to deliver.
  2. Underestimating inputs required: whether it’s access to data or cross-departmental collaboration in a larger organisation.
  3. Losing champions: this tends to happen more on the corporate side, but the loss of some who have clearly seen the value of a solution offered by a startup can spell the kiss of death.
4) What are your tips for making a corporate/startup relationship work well?

We could probably write a book on this but here are two things that may seem obvious but come up time and time again:

  1. Have a clear end goal. It is the nature of the beast that many conversations start off as explorations into what may be possible — you don’t know what you don’t know. Scoping a pilot is important but so is having a clear view of what happens after the pilot has been proven to be a success.
  2. Identify constraints as soon as possible. These constraints might relate to time for delivery, skills, industry workflows, resource, or technological interoperability...
5) How do you tackle the tech gender imbalance issue at IoT Tribe?
Sometimes you just have to let relationships die.

In all honesty, this is still work-in-progress. We are really sensitive to the lack of women in tech, particularly in industrial tech so we never miss an opportunity to put women at the forefront of what we do. For instance, we have quite a few ecosystem events and we are really fortunate to know lots of talented women working in industry and tech that truly experts in their fields.

6) What recent project have you enjoyed?

Getting our Singapore accelerator off the ground has been super intense but really rewarding. We are not only delivering an acceleration programme that is open to European as well as local startups but as the Singapore government's Global Innovation Alliance partner we are organising inbound missions, helping Singaporean scaleups and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) come to London.

7) What about notable failures? What have you learned the hard way?

Sometimes you just have to let relationships die. This applies to founders as well as corporates.

8)What book about innovation has been most helpful to you?

I would say Daniel Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which is not about innovation per se, but about how irrational behaviour drives us all. I am frequently told that I am quite Cartesian, so this book made me really challenge my usual way of thinking.