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Collaborate to innovate: the keys to a successful startup-corporate collaboration

In a business world set ablaze with technological and societal transformations, innovation fever is catching on. Startups are disrupting whole industries from the bottom up, haunting well-established organisations with the fear of missing out.


Johanna Koskinen

development officer, Ulysseus
Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 13.03.2020

Corporate innovation decision making cannot rely on inaccurate motives. Innovation needs to be backed by thorough strategic analysis. While being exposed to new perspectives can stimulate creativity, innovation is unequivocally not to be considered as an occasional activity. Innovation is an iterative process requiring patience and discipline.

An increasing number of well-established organisations are investigating the possibility to accelerate internal innovation through open innovation. Before looking for external stakeholders such as agile, growth-promising startups to create more value for the company, there is a necessity to align internally by setting up a reliable and flexible innovation process.

The collaboration with innovative, growth-promising startups should be based on the strategic relevance to the business. Successful partnerships require a strong plan, focus and commitment from both sides – along with a clear win-win value proposition.

Albeit startup-corporate collaboration is currently a hot topic, it can become challenging to find the right tools to set up a successful partnership. Recognising this, we have designed a hands-on tool, the Co-Innovation Builder, with partners from academia and business across Europe. The tool helps to identify the key elements for building a successful startup-corporate collaboration.

Before starting to reflect on the collaboration together, startups and corporates need to work independently through important components of the Co-Innovation Builder, which are referred to as drivers, deciders, contributors, resources and returns.

There are many different drivers for startups and corporates to collaborate. A typical driver for startups is getting access to finance, whereas, corporate partners may offer much more e.g. expertise, networks and customers. The driving forces for corporates may be the need to boost their innovation culture or solve specific challenges with the technological expertise of the startup. Whatever the individual motivations for collaboration are, these need to be clearly expressed from the beginning.

There should be a decider both in the startup and the corporate who ensures that open innovation is taken seriously. Both teams should also take into account that they have different resources to offer, such as finance, technology or knowledge.

After going through the individual parts of the Co-Innovation Builder, both startups and corporates collaboratively define fundamental points, viz. common goal, format, outcomes, risks and KPIs and milestones.

Once the common goal has been defined, an important issue to be addressed is the format, including the type of collaboration. Once these components have been formulated, it is necessary to delve into the outcomes. Jointly visualising together the outcomes stemming from the partnership makes the process tangible for the whole team.

Assessing the core risks associated with a collaboration with full transparency as well as reflecting on how to mitigate them is assuredly part of the set up. The right approach is to manage risks, and why not, turn threats into opportunities.

Finally, setting KPIs and milestones from the very beginning allows to estimate whether the partnership is going in a good direction, and if not, end it. When the metrics have been determined, startups and corporates can formalize what has been agreed upon via for example, a letter of intent to make expectations clear.

To conclude, successful startup-corporate collaboration is complex. It requires good planning, communication and the right tools. Our Co-Innovation Builder helps startups and corporates communicate and collaborate effectively.


Adèle Yaroulina is an EU Project Manager at European Startup Network. She has a 10-years experience in business development, sales, strategic partnerships and project management within private & public sectors. Adèle has acquired significant knowledge of digital innovation and is fascinated by the impact of new technologies on business activities.

Johanna Koskinen (KTM) is working as a Project Coordinator for the Degree Programme in International Business in Haaga-Helia. She has researched microbusiness growth in Argentina in her Master’s thesis for Turku School of Economics while working in a local business incubator, and now continued to research startup-corporate collaboration in the CORSHIP project.The European Startup Network and Haaga-Helia have participated in a three year ERASMUS+ funded Corporate EDUpreneurship – Benefitting Startups, Universities and Corporates across Europe –project since the beginning of 2019. The Co-Innovation Builder is introduced in the MOOC course Co-Innovation Journey for Startups and Corporates, which is one of the core results of the project.