Here's a look at how three CIOs connect with tech startups as a way to learn about new technologies and jump-start innovation in their organizations.
Formalize the process
I don't respond to cold calls or emails from startups, and I don't expect to meet them at large conferences. Instead, I meet them through an informal CIO network that gets together regularly. We set an agenda and have a facilitator who finds a presenter--a representative from a company with a technology of interest who then has a roundtable discussion with us. I've come across an intrusion-detection system this way. I also participate on the advisory boards of funded startups--one is a videoconferencing company--and venture capitalists. The universities in the area are good sources of contacts, too.
We have systemized an innovation process with a team that is part of the IT department; it includes top performers and a newly hired director of innovation and architecture, whose job is to reach out to companies and assimilate innovative technologies. We brought in a suite of mobile technology tools this way.
A key for us is that the portfolio area within IT doesn't feel threatened. There is synergy between the groups, and we've made it clear this is a meritocracy--the top performers will get to work on projects that move the needle the most.
Employ sanity checks
Word of mouth is a great way to learn about startups. I speak with other CIOs because they often have experienced the same issues, and we often share the same perspective. Another way is by tapping into people who follow specific industries. While large IT research firms don't typically have real startups on their radar, industry experts will individually follow small companies. I actually use Google quite a lot; other good sources of information on technology developments include the venture capital community, blogs, email lists, angel investors and websites like AngelList.
If we are interested in technology for one of our companies, we pressure-test the idea or product with some of our other portfolio companies that have faced similar real-world problems that the technology purportedly solved. The technology can't just be cool--it has to solve a problem. If our interest is more from a deployment perspective, we do a qualitative assessment at first. If we find a technology interesting, we'll spend time learning about the company. We have a due diligence process in which we meet the team from the company, learn the technology through demos and give the startup feedback from an enterprise perspective that it may not have received before.
Apply the 'Shark Tank' approach
One of the most effective ways I source innovation is through technology incubators. I am on the board of a Chicago incubator called 1871 and a mentor at both MetaProp NYC, a New York real estate incubator, and REach, an organization affiliated with the National Association of Realtors. Both provide good opportunities to meet people in the startup community, which in turn creates new connections for other kinds of engagement.
I also attend smaller conferences that attract a wealth of talent with interesting ideas. DisruptCRE, for example, gives innovative companies the opportunity to showcase their technology in Shark Tank-like panels where they have two minutes to make their pitches and answer questions from real estate decision-makers. DTZ is in discussions for a formal service agreement with a few of these startups as a result of one of these conferences.
We also replicate the Shark Tank format internally through virtual vendor fairs, where eight startups have five minutes to present to us. Members of my advisory council attend, as does our CEO. After our most recent event, we chose two of those vendors for further investigation. I also try to invite to our monthly leadership team meeting one startup that I've prequalified or that has been recommended. Like the Shark Tank TV show, these interactive sessions are a lot of fun.