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Startup Cooperations: The way corporates enter the right partnerships and waste less time on legal paperwork

15. June 2017

Startup cooperation is the new oil (for corporate innovation)

In the past, corporates tried to diversify their portfolio by investing into or outright acquiring startups or building their own incubators. Often, these measures help with marketing, but are not unlikely to fail on delivering on larger objectives. Not only are startups usually not interested in pure capital investments, because they don’t want the corporate to steer their business, but also there is no realistic chance for a sustainable collaboration as long as the investments are not sufficiently in line with the corporate’s strategy.


Collaborating with startups should be more than just a marketing “shtick” – corporates even depend on startups to leverage technology know-how and a certain entrepreneurial approach that is not the corporate’s core business and way of working. E.g. a corporate trying to establish a substantial IoT business may need to cooperate with an already established startup, e.g. a predictive maintenance expert, to build its IoT business.


A well-known example for startup cooperations is the BMW Startup Garage. BMW routinely scouts startups with innovative technologies, products or services that can be integrated into BMW products and therefore add value to the corporate’s core business. Instead of investing into the startup and acquiring a share, BMW buys products and services from them and delivers a revenue stream to the startup.


As a second step, when the business relation is established, BMW may consider buying a stake in the company. Cooperation means building a balanced and sustainable partnership between the corporate and the startup.


But finding the right startups to cooperate is hard, because there are too many and not enough at the same time. We suggest to follow a funnel approach with four clearly structured steps to identify and evaluate the right startups that actually fit with the corporate’s strategic focus. This fit is what we consider the crucial part that needs far more thoughtfulness than corporates have historically shown.

Step 1: Align with strategy

Cooperation with startups isn’t done for cooperation’s sake. It needs to follow purpose and focus – and needs to be aligned with the strategic focus areas the corporate has defined – on a specific level. For example, if a corporate decides to move into the IoT space and has set focus on e.g. predictive maintenance, startups with expertise in sensor technology or advanced analytics are highly interesting for a cooperation and need to be channeled into the funnel. A corporate will likely have multiple of these focus areas in parallel, which is why the funnel will be sliced horizontally and needs to be managed in parallel.

Step 2: Identify the right startups

To identify potential cooperation partners, criteria should be defined to create a longlist of relevant startups, which should include the strength of their technology, their business model, their sales muscle and their management team. A topic-oriented overview of local and global market players needs to be developed and the funnel should be filled broadly and then narrowed down quickly. National and international startup databases should help find relevant companies. Leveraging personal startup and founder networks helps to quickly identify additional relevant companies. The longlist should be shortened to a list of about 10 startups to enter more specific discussions with.

Step 3: Scope the cooperation opportunity

To scope a potential cooperation model, we look at three things:

a) Overlap and complementarity of critical success factors of both businesses (e.g.: How much is owning tech IP a deciding factor?)

b) Synergy and support potentials of the business model canvas elements of both businesses (e.g.: How much do we use the same channels to address customers, maybe even competitively?)

c) Ability to align critical processes across the businesses (e.g.: How could and should the sales process be interlinked to deliver on scope synergies?)

a) Critical success factors

understanding the critical success factors of both businesses and how they play out with or against each other, is an important first step. We look at 15 different success factors, structured into categories management capabilities, operating capabilities and proprietary assets. In which ones is the startup strong and where can it be supported by the corporate’s expertise? What do we need to leverage (e.g. customer access, brand, IP) and where do we need to leave the startup alone (e.g. HR, regulations)?

We need to understand in detail how the building blocks of the two companies match and where they complement each other. This evaluation is the base to define which type of cooperation is the best option.

b) Synergy and support potential

In a second step, we typically work with the Excubate Corporate Startup Canvas to compare the two business models and identify synergy and conflict potential within each of the 12 canvas elements. Is the startup approach cannibalizing or complementing the corporate’s business model? How do value propositions compare, how do customer segments overlap, specifically? This results in a thorough analysis of similarities, synergies and conflicts that is highly valuable when designing the cooperation model with a startup or comparing options across multiple potential startup partners.

Step b) is obviously not fully free from overlaps with a), which we see as a benefit. We are challenging the discussion from a 2nd perspective (specifically looking at synergies and conflicts) and, thus, refine the view developed in a) to ensure a most thorough analysis.

c) Align critical processes

The third step is to identify options to link the core processes of both parties. For example, if the startup should be utilized as a “sales engine”, the different sales processes need to be analyzed in detail to fully describe how they can be aligned and in which step of the sales process the startup should be integrated. This analysis helps derive potential process dependencies or bottlenecks. Typically, the most important processes to consider are development, sales and customer service, and it’s key to focus on these and not boil the ocean by looking at all processes. The biggest levers are rarely internal processes like finance and HR, but sometimes it may even be those, e.g. when recruiting and building a team is critically important.

Step 4: Enter the cooperation and survive the honeymoon phase

When a potential cooperation model is identified and scoped out in detail, legal alignments should be made and contracts need to be set up. The objectives and deliverables for both sides should be clearly defined.


However, companies often end up creating an extensive legal paper and stretching this phase over an extended period, thus – in fact – often killing the cooperation before it started. Our above approach and analysis ensures a more trust-based approach that clearly outlines the win-win abilities of both parties in a very transparent and business-oriented way and makes extensive legal agreements less important. Both parties should trust in this cooperation and keep the contracting process lean, knowing the nuts and bolts of the cooperation upfront. We are convinced that if the first three steps followed a clear approach based on a thorough analysis, a fertile ground is created for a partnership on eye level with mutual goals and incentives. And wasting time and money on complex legal issues is minimized in the first place.


The “honeymoon phase” (i.e. the first six months of the cooperation) should be clearly defined and well managed to avoid that the cooperation fizzles out before it even started to gain traction. The onboarding process needs to be structured, a meeting and interaction countdown should be followed and roles be defined to start working the cooperation.


Building a strong startup cooperation muscle is getting more important for corporates to ensure their ability to innovate effectively and sustainably. Building this muscle is, however, far from trivial and can result in substantial loss of value, credibility and reputation if not done right. Building on experience and a thought-through methodology will help maximize the benefits of startup cooperations.


For more information, experience and an individual approach for your startup cooperation efforts, talk to Excubate:

Basierend auf Ihren Innovations-/Unternehmerambitionen helfen wir Ihnen, die richtige Ressource zu identifizieren, um Ihre Ziele zu erreichen.

  • Sobald die Ziele für Ihr Unternehmen klar sind, ist es an der Zeit, die richtigen Ressourcen zu besetzen. Wir helfen Ihnen gerne dabei, die notwendigen Fähigkeiten zu identifizieren, um Ihre Innovations-/Unternehmerziele erfolgreich umzusetzen.

  • Gerne identifizieren wir mit Ihnen die erforderliche Rolle des Unternehmers für Ihre individuellen Herausforderungen.

  • Über unser Netzwerk und unsere Rekrutierungskanäle bieten wir Ihnen Zugang zu erfahrenen Unternehmern mit den individuellen Fähigkeiten, die Sie benötigen, und einer Kultur, die zu Ihrem Unternehmen passt.

  • Wir begleiten den Onboarding-Prozess aktiv und helfen Ihnen, die individuellen Ziele und den gewünschten Zusammenarbeitsmodus auf Basis des Governance-Modells zu vereinbaren.

Um die Ausrichtung Ihrer Innovationsambitionen zu operationalisieren, ist der Aufbau eines strukturierten Innovationsportfoliomanagements inklusive Bewertungssystemen unerlässlich, um die richtigen Entscheidungen bezüglich Projektauswahl, Ressourcenallokation zu treffen und dadurch ein attraktives Rendite-Risiko-Verhältnis zu erzielen.

  • Lassen Sie uns Auswahlkriterien definieren, um die vielversprechendsten Projekte zu identifizieren, die strategisch zu Ihren Zielen passen, und sie mit der bestmöglichen Ressourcenallokation zu besetzen.

  • Wir bringen Erfahrung in der Erstellung eines strukturierten Innovationstrichters von der Ideengenerierung bis zur Umsetzung eines skalierbaren MVP mit.

  • Wir helfen Ihnen beim Aufbau eines Projektsteuerungs- und Bewertungssystems mit klaren Schlüsselergebnissen für jede Phase. Wir helfen Ihnen, die richtigen externen, internen und finanziellen Bewertungskriterien zu identifizieren.

  • Wir helfen Ihnen, branchenspezifische Zeitrahmen und Budgetgrenzen pro Entwicklungsphase des Innovation Funnels zu definieren.

  • Gerne stellen wir Ihnen pro Schritt die notwendigen Dokumente/Vorlagen zur Verfügung, die Ihnen eine strukturierte Auswertung der einzelnen Aktivitäten ermöglichen.

Mit unserer branchenübergreifenden Expertise unterstützen wir Sie dabei, die richtige strategische Ausrichtung Ihrer Innovationsaktivitäten zu definieren. Basierend auf diesen Erkenntnissen besteht das Ziel darin, den organisatorischen Aufbau für Ihre Innovations-/Entrepreneurship-Aktivitäten darzustellen.

  • Basierend auf Ihrer Vision oder Strategie helfen wir Ihnen, die strategischen Ziele und zentralen Säulen Ihrer Innovationsstrategie/Ambition zu definieren. Lassen Sie uns gemeinsam identifizieren, wo der Fokus Ihrer Innovationsaktivitäten in Bezug auf interne Transformation, aber auch Geschäftsmodellinnovation & Corporate Entrepreneurship liegen sollte.

  • Wir führen Markt- und Trendanalysen für Ihr Unternehmen/Ihre Branche durch, um dessen Entwicklung zu identifizieren und vorherzusehen. Dazu analysieren wir Ihre gesamte Wertschöpfungskette im Hinblick auf Disruptionspotenziale durch innovative Player wie Start-ups.

  • Wir helfen Ihnen, die strategischen Stoßrichtungen für Ihren Innovation Hub abzuleiten und die relevanten Suchfelder für Ihre Innovations-/ Entrepreneurship-Aktivitäten zu spezifizieren.

  • Mit unserer Expertise aus vergleichbaren Projekten unterstützen wir Sie aktiv mit Best Practices beim organisatorischen Aufbau Ihrer Innovationseinheit. Eine beispielhafte Fragestellung ist, wie die Corporate-Entrepreneurship-Aktivitäten personell besetzt werden sollten, welche Rollen typischerweise benötigt werden und welche Berichtsstrukturen in Ihr Unternehmen vorhanden sein sollten.

Wir helfen Ihnen bei der Analyse der Ist-Situation und skizzieren mit den folgenden exemplarischen Fragen das gewünschte Zielbild

  • Haben Sie in Ihrem Unternehmen ein Innovationsprogramm installiert, um Ihre Innovationsaktivitäten zu strukturieren? (von Einzelleistungen bis zum Ablauf eines strukturierten Prozesses)

  • Gibt es eine klare Innovations-/Corporate Entrepreneurship-Strategie? (vom einem reaktiven Führer zu einem Innovationsführer, der bereits im Markt bereits das traditionelle Geschäftsmodell disruptiert)

  • Gibt es ein eigenes Fördermodell für das Innovationsprogramm? (Von Leihen von Budgets aus externen Quellen bis hin zur Sicherstellung des Zugriffs auf eigene Innovationsbudgets. Dies in Abhängigkeit vom Projektfortschritt und der Verfügbarkeit eines Modells, in dem Mitarbeiter eigene Unternehmen gründen können, inkl. Investitionspartnerschaften)

  • Haben Sie ein eigenes Staffing- & Incentive-Modell für interessierte Mitarbeiter? Vom Pushen von Innovationsaktivitäten als zusätzliche 10%-Aktivität bis hin zu klaren Allokationsschemata inkl. Anreizen)

We help you analyse the current situation and sketch out the desired target image with the following exemplary questions

  • Do you have an innovation programme installed in your company to structure your innovation activities? (from individual efforts to running a structured process)

  • Is there a clear innovation/ Corporate Entrepreneurship strategy? (from reactive to being an innovations leader in the market and already disrupting the traditional business model)

  • Is there a dedicated funding model for the innovation programme? (from borrowing budgets from other sources to ensuring access to own innovation budgets depending on the progress of the project and the availability of a model in which employees can start own ventures incl. investment partnerships)

  • Do you have your own staffing & incentive model for interested employees? (from pushing innovation activities as an additional 10% activity to clear allocation schemes incl. incentives)