Large companies investing in or incubating smaller companies with interesting ideas is hardly new. In 1918, for example, DuPont took a 25 percent stake in a relatively new company called General Motors. In fact, throughout the second industrial revolution, from 1880 to about 1930, companies such as Coca-Cola, CSX (founded in 1901 as US Steel) and Dow Chemicals often invested in smaller companies with new and innovative industrial technologies in order to gain an early-mover advantage. The strategy worked. According to Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn, 247 out of today’s Fortune 500 were created during those 50 years. Venturing took place between the industrial revolution and the information revolution, but on a smaller scale and at a slower pace.
Then came the phenomenal Nasdaq run-up of the late ’90s and a new wave of venturing began. “Companies were getting whacked across the snout and asking what happened,” according to Heidi Mason, managing director of venture consultancy Bell-Mason Group in Silicon Valley. “This little upstart came along and messed with my business.” The eye-popping dotcom stock valuations woke many corporations to the Internet’s business-transforming possibilities.
Sources say the current market downturn will not discourage the trend in corporate investing, but how many new Fortune 500 companies this wave of venturing will produce is yet to be determined.