September 21, 2021

How Boots plans to take innovation to the next level

Seed funding for external startups, tapping employees for ideas and test stores are on the agenda

Thomas Brown

6 min read

Boots is a stalwart of the British high street, having served the nation’s needs as a pharmacist, healthcare specialist, optician and beauty retailer for more than 170 years. But like most retailers it recognises the need to make big changes as it adjusts to the post-pandemic era.

One of the people bringing about those changes is Rich Corbridge, chief information officer. Originally recruited as director of innovation in 2019, Corbridge widened his role to CIO just over a year ago. And now, as the health and beauty brand recovers from heavy losses caused by the pandemic last year, Corbridge has a number of innovation projects he plans to roll out in the next 12 months.

The first priority will be to bring in technology to tap into innovative ideas from across the company’s more than 2.3k stores.

That we haven’t been able to harness digital tools is probably one of my biggest regrets.

“That we haven’t been able to harness digital tools is probably one of my biggest regrets,” Corbridge says.

“There’s so much untapped knowledge across our estate, and that means we need to scale our engagement beyond head office. We need to deploy tools that enable colleagues to alert us to patient problems or ideas, and then access the support to take that from a two-sentence bright idea to something more thought through.”

The second priority is to start investing in external startups (and some internal ideas) at seed level. “We used to talk about innovation as ‘making the right bets’, but our governance and our frameworks have given us discipline, such that we now talk about making smart investment choices,” Corbridge says. He is looking for ways to free up some budget for investments.

We used to talk about innovation as ‘making the right bets’... we now talk about making smart investment choices.

Corbridge says Boots still needs the ability to invest more easily and make partnerships more swiftly. “We have to be able to move early without going to full business case level — I’m looking for governance-lite, not governance-free, though.”

Lastly, Corbridge aspires to wire innovation more closely into the bricks and mortar estate at Boots’ disposal, establishing some key retail stores as known test-beds for new innovations.

I’d like to find a few sites where we can...go-live with MVPs quicker, and get feedback in real-time.

“Amazon did it years ago in Seattle, Morrison’s in the UK has done it in Leeds. I’d like us to find a few sites – and not just in London — where we can build colleague, customer and patient excitement for our investments in ‘the new’, where we can go live with MVPs quicker, and get feedback in realtime,” he says.

Over the last few years, Corbridge says he has learned a number of pragmatic lessons about how to make innovation work at a venerable old brand like Boots.

Lesson one: Stand on the shoulders of those in the game

It’s seductively easy for an organisation’s innovation agenda to become caught in its own hype. Before you know it, a so-called ‘legacy’ organisation has created ‘XYZ plc Labs’, launched an accelerator programme and is field-tripping its executives to Palo Alto.

We’re not trying to be an innovator. Rather, we want to be at the heart of the innovation.

Corbridge takes a more measured stance. “We’re not trying to be an innovator,” he says. “Rather, we want to be at the heart of the innovation. It’s far more fruitful for us to find partners and collaborators than it is to go it alone.”

One of the people Corbridge regularly collaborates with is Professor Tony Young, National Clinical Director for Innovation at NHS England and head of the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme, which has become the world's largest workforce development programme for healthcare professionals.


“Tony is already widely scanning and evaluating the start-up community, as well as attracting entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs that have the potential to reshape healthcare. By partnering with his team and becoming mentors in his programme, our efforts are fast-tracked rather than duplicative. We get access to an already-established ecosystem of partnerships — new start-ups, the larger tech firms, and the NHS itself. For us to build this from the ground up would be costly, time-consuming and potentially incomplete.”

One example is Apian, a medical drone startup working with the NHS on delivery capability in harder to reach areas. Corbridge’s team are exploring the possibility of also using Apian for urgent drug delivery or test sample collection within Boots stores.

Corbridge and his team are also looking at working with MediShout, an estates management tool designed to unlock efficiency for NHS clinical teams.

“We’re in the early stages with a number of other startups from the programme too,” adds Corbridge. “Two I’m particularly excited about include VR optician visits to help reduce children’s anxiety at eye tests, and a new capability in the Boots App to improve patients’ understanding of clinical protocol associated with different drugs and their interactions.”

Lesson two: Hold hands

It’s a truism that large, established corporates and the startup community rarely make ideal bedfellows. For every verb used to describe the alluring nature of startups, its opposite is typically true of corporates. Agile versus sluggish. Decisive versus bureaucratic. Flat versus hierarchical.

Corbridge counsels that there’s a danger that corporates can either try to mask these realities, or simply ignore them. Neither is a winning strategy. “We’re still learning how to work with startups, scaleups and with new innovations. There can be internal resistance, and there can often be good reasons for what may appear [as] sluggish processes.”

We’re up-front with startups. We have complexity, we have governance models and we have process. But we’ll hold your hand through it all.

It became quickly apparent to Corbridge and co. that the answer lay in transparency. “We’re upfront with startups from the get-go. We have complexity, we have governance models and we have process. But we’ll hold your hand through it all, and help you to navigate our systems as painlessly as possible. We just ask people to bear with us as we get slicker and simpler, and they understand.”

Lesson three: Bring people inside

Too often, innovation leaders can take the word ‘incubate’ to an extreme, ringfencing startups and collaborators from the wider organisation. It’s easy to see why. Kept separate, the ‘new’ stands a better chance of flourishing without being held back by the ‘old’. And failure or course changes are less embarrassing if they’re less visible.

However, Corbridge believes this strategy ultimately backfires.

“I wish we’d given this more focus,” he admits. “You keep clear water between the corporate and the startups you work with, while you build acceptance.”

If I could go back to 2019, I’d tell myself to bring the idea generators into our teams sooner.

“Keeping them on the outside, however, only undermines this — for all parties. If I could go back to 2019, I’d tell myself to bring the idea generators, the founders, the owners and the entrepreneurs into our teams sooner. Make them visible, let the wider business see what they’re doing and its potential customer/patient impact, and let the ideas (and the people behind them) thrive in front of colleagues. It helps them to be embraced internally, but will also show you mean it when you use the word ‘partnership’.”

Back on the road

The last two-and-a-half years, more than half of which has been under extreme pressure, have already given Corbridge a crash course in making innovation work at a big company. But as the world moves into the post-pandemic stage, it is time to turbo-charge these efforts. But still pragmatically.