The word “startup” is everywhere these days. You hear it being used by young entrepreneurs with world-changing ideas. You also hear it from large corporations that feel to winds of disruptive change blowing across the business landscape.
The word has a romantic ring. It conjures up images of open workspaces filled with earnest, unconventional, visionary, creative young men and women who think outside the box and care more about turning their ideas into reality than anything else.
But no matter how attractive and promising their ideas may be, they rarely come to fruition without some backing from the big guys. Players with deeper pockets have a vital role in the process.
Where established businesses fit in
So, in practical terms, how can large organizations help startups?
That was the question of the day at the Startup Festin Montréal on Wednesday, July 12, when three in-the-know corporate executives took the stage:
Henri Dolino, Senior Director, Innovation & Digital Strategy, Desjardins;
Francis Baillet, Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Ubisoft;
and Serge Legris, Vice President and Chief Technology Planning Officer, Videotron.
The discussion was moderated by Géraldine Martin, Director of Entrepreneurship with the City of Montréal.
And, in September 2016, it launched Canada’s first Open-Air Smart Living Laboratory, together with Ericsson, the Quartier de l’innovation and the École de technologie supérieure.
As Serge Legris recounted at the Startup Fest, the idea behind the lab was to create an environment where startups can test their ideas. It lets them use state-of-the-art technology to which they wouldn’t otherwise have access.
Inventive apps, wearables, connected street furniture, devices to regulate air quality or to control traffic can all be tested in a real-world environment. For startups, it’s a boon.
“It’s like a playground,” says Serge Legris. It’s also a parallel universe, and it has to be: “With its millions of customers, Videotron can’t really allow a startup to begin testing a new technology on its system. With the lab, we have a parallel mini-network that is cordoned off from our clients environment. It’s a sandbox where people can play, explore, try things out and work them out by trial and error.”
The startup philosophy
Startups hew to a lean-and-mean developmental model. In practical terms, that means progressing one step at a time by piling on enhancement layers: instead of waiting for a product to be totally ready for prime time before releasing it, they put out a barebones version with core features, get users’ comments, and then improve it by fixing bugs and enriching the experience. And then they do the same thing over again.
“We want to give startups a chance to gather valuable user data,” says Serge Legris. “Information on satisfaction, usage, behaviours, preferences. When you’re developing a product, that kind of feedback is vital. The smart living lab makes it available.”
In addition to opening up technological possibilities, providing an incubator environment and of course extending financing, large companies can also help by mentoring.
The experience of men and women who “have been there,” their networks of contacts, their advice and encouragement can make the difference between an idea that stays on the drawing board and one that turns into a business.
“Videotron is a Québec leader and leaders help others move forward,” Serge Legris said at the Startup Fest. “At the end of the day, everyone benefits.”
How to submit a project to the smart living lab
A portal will go live in fall 2017 and will be the main gateway for startups that want to be part of the smart living lab.