Q&A with IBM on working with start-ups for retail innovation

Last month, the Venturespring Future of Retail Challenge collected together a number of start-ups developing technologies to benefit shoppers and retailers. Alongside, Argos, Iceland and Unilver, IBM provided mentorship to the companies and helped judge the competition which saw Universal Basket win £750,000 in investment, as well as £20,000 in business acceleration support and exposure.

Essential Retail speaks to head of ecosystems and innovation for IBM Cloud UK and Ireland, Alison Say, to understand why the vendor wants to work more closely with start-ups.

Why did you get involved with Venturespring?

We have partnered with Venturespring before using the digital innovation model for our Smarter City challenge and saw fantastic results. The Venturespring Innovation Challenge model allows IBM to support and build relationships with the innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and influencers in a specific industry sector or aligned to a particular opportunity for business, social-economic or environmental change.

Is this the best way to foster innovation?

Given that it brings together talented start-ups, entrepreneurs, developers and world-class corporates, it is a great way to foster innovation that is shaping the world of technology across various sectors. It creates a great opportunity for developers, start-ups and the corporates to unleash innovation and get ahead of or create market disruption. That doesn’t stop when the challenge ends – the important part is to continue to work together post-challenge where both parties find a mutual benefit in working together.

However, for IBM it is just one of the ways in which we can foster innovation. We also work with developer community groups, accelerators and industry-aligned incubators to support innovation, and often cases bring that innovation back into IBM and into our clients in partnership with start-ups. We also work with government bodies such as the Mayor’s Office and London & Partners to support innovation through their programs and events and also engage in initiatives in particular focused on digital skills especially in young students.

What were you hoping to get out of the programme?

Our objective of the programme is to introduce developers and start-ups to the possibilities of IBM technologies such as cloud, Watson, IoT, security and analytics and work with them to find ways in enhancing their solution roadmap and go-to-market execution. We are also looking to identify start-up solutions that offer innovative ideas for existing and new clients. 

Why should retailers consider working with start-ups?

Start-ups can offer faster time to market and agility in execution. Start-ups can also often offer a different lens to a market problem given that quite frequently their background isn’t necessarily from the specific industry they are innovating around. We know that disruption comes from outside the specific industry segment and start ups can have a different perspective at looking at industry problems. In addition, start-ups can deliver a targeted solution to a specific problem providing line of business leaders to act dynamically to improve their client and consumer experiences.

Do start-ups compete with IBM on some level?

We look at start-ups as a source of innovation and creation. Our aspiration is to co-create and go to market with start-ups where there is a mutual benefit. There is no ‘them and us’ any more. No David and Goliath – it is an even playing field.

When do you stop calling a start-up ‘a start-up’?

I think that depends on the company in question. I think ‘start-up’ is a state of mind and a set of behaviours that many mid and large companies may still carry in their DNA.

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