Community Spotlight: Innovation Leader

Q&A with Scott Kirsner, CEO & Co-Founder of Innovation Leader

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Scott Kirsner is CEO and Co-Founder of Innovation Leader, a Boston-based media and events company that focuses on helping innovators in large companies deliver results. Scott has spent two decades as a business journalist and contributing editor at the Boston Globe, Wired Magazine, Fast Company, Variety, The New York Times, BusinessWeek and other publications. Scott is the author of several books on innovation and technology, including a highly-acclaimed collaboration with George Lucas, “Inventing the Movies,” which explores the challenge of bringing new ideas to a century-old, change-resistant industry: Hollywood.

What compelled you to create Innovation Leader, and what do you hope your audience takes away from this rich resource?

First, thanks for the compliment! We created Innovation Leader because we noticed that there weren’t any media outlets focusing exclusively on how innovation, new product creation and R&D happen inside big companies. Innovation in startups is really well-covered — it has kind of been a media obsession for the past 10 years. But we think that building new things in a 10-person company has a whole different set of rules than building new things in a 10,000-person company. We wanted to help that second group of people learn from each other, and ideally, succeed more often.

Innovation Leader hosts Impact every year, an innovation conference exclusively for corporate innovation, strategy and R&D professionals. How did the global pandemic affect how your team approached this year’s conference, and what are the major key themes we can expect to hear?

We hold the Impact conference every October, and because we’re a startup, we wanted to create an MVP before we had to run it virtually. So we created a July online conference that ran for two days called “Charting the Future.” We used that as a forcing function to check out every half-way decent platform for online conferences, and we landed on one made by a French startup called SwapCard. It also taught us some important things about what people want — sessions for learning are good, but they also want you to try to duplicate the ability to meet other people, like you might in a conference hallway or cocktail party. So with Impact this year, we’re doing more networking and are probably going to use a second platform to facilitate that —

The overarching value prop of Impact this year is: how do you keep making constructive change happen in big companies at a chaotic time? Each day has its own focus: Reinventing Your Culture & Building Your Internal Network of Supporters; Staying Connected with Customers and the World Outside Your Company; and Prototyping, Testing, and Launching New Offerings.

Your platform released this survey detailing how COVID has influenced and altered the corporate innovation landscape. What were some of the most surprising data points and insights from this report, and what are your personal thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on this industry?

That survey, published back in May, found that about half of corporate innovation groups had a hiring freeze and 43 percent were seeing their budgets cut. So early in the pandemic, you could already see that these future-focused teams in big companies were being given fewer resources to work with. I think the big theme of 2020 is going to be frugality — getting more done with less. Innovation teams told us in that report that they were being asked to find ways to support the core business, help reduce costs and operate more efficiently.

We also did a more recent survey, released in August and in collaboration with KPMG, that found that there are three outcomes that C-suite leaders in large companies really care about in 2020: are you helping generate new revenues, are you helping cut costs, or are you helping improve the perception of our company or our brand in the market. That last one is an interesting one, but I think it’s reflective of everyone wanting to be seen as a hero in 2020 and not a villain. That ties into not just the pandemic and what you’re doing to keep people safe, but also into really important national conversations we’re having about diversity, economic inequality and police brutality.

In this recent story you published for The Boston Globe, you explore how tech startups were forced to quickly pivot and adapt their business plans and strategies to solve the problems created by COVID. Are there any trends or opportunities you’ve noticed as it relates to corporate and startup engagement models that emerged because of the global crisis?

I think one of the dynamics of 2020 is that, as of mid-March, interaction between startups and corporates has really flat-lined. Part of that is because this relationship was very reliant on in-person demo days, pitch competitions, university visits and trips to Boston, Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv. I think corporates are, in many cases, trying to refine their problem statements for how startups can help them — perhaps focusing on shorter-term initiatives and on startups that are closer to having a product that can be deployed. I’ve also spoken to corporates that are still trying to figure out how to source and interact with relevant startups in a purely digital way. Innovation Leader is going to test something this fall around startups doing live demos for corporates online as a way to combat these pain points.

What is your outlook for 2021 and corporate innovation? What are the temporary and/or permanent changes from 2020 that we can expect to see carried into next year and beyond?

Our data about 2021 is optimistic: most of the people we surveyed this past summer expect their budgets to rebound; although people are always hopeful about getting more money in the future.

My prediction for the next year is that a lot of more substantial innovation moves back into the startup world, where there isn’t as much fear of failure or bureaucratic “braking functions” that slow things down. I think many smart companies will acknowledge that and create mechanisms to track the most relevant startups, invest in some and buy others. I think we’re in for a few years of thinner innovation and R&D groups in Global 1000 companies, with more of a tight focus on a few problems or opportunities that everyone in the company really acknowledges are important.

If I were a company that made boats, I would be assuming that someone is going to become the Tesla of electric boats — and that should be me. If I were a company that owned hotels, I would be doubling-down on experiments in all kinds of lodging and tourism businesses that didn’t involve interacting with people in a huge hotel lobby, or swimming with other people in a big pool — think tiny house rentals, RV rentals, special after-hours guided tours of museums that might cost a lot, but keep you away from crowds.

If you believe your company has a future, you need to be prototyping it all the time.

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Silicon Foundry is an innovation advisory platform that builds bridges between leading multi-national corporations and global startup ecosystems.

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