I’ve had the good fortune throughout my serendipitous career to have been an entrepreneur, part of several start-up management teams, a “big company” executive, deal maker and a strategic advisor/consultant to new ventures. One thing that continues to amaze me is how few companies are equipped to interact with startups or new technology acquisition opportunities. With all the talk about “open innovation” – many companies are “closed for business” when it comes to being approachable for those with new ideas or technologies to offer them.

I was at Kodak from 1991-1998, starting in product management and business development roles at a Boston-based subsidiary. I did a big licensing deal with Microsoft and got myself a corporate job at HQ in Rochester working on strategic alliances. I worked in Corporate Marketing headed by Carl Gustin who had worked at Apple. One of the things I kept on hearing was how difficult Kodak was for small and innovative companies to work with. If you were Adobe or Microsoft – you had an alliance manager assigned to you – but if you were a small imaging software developer – good luck. With Carl and CEO George Fisher’s support, we did two things: the first was to fund and staff a Developer Relations Group (DRG), the second was to open an office for DRG in San Jose. Between 1996 and 1998, we signed up thousands of developers to the program. Unfortunately – this move did not change Kodak’s fortunes in the long run – but it created an opportunity to break down barriers that encouraged interaction between small innovative companies who were pushing the envelope and those inside. The access that was created was two-way. Product managers who were creating new cameras, scanners, or online photo services – had a network of developers who could provide input and feedback.

Twenty years later – I am still finding myself often trying to bridge the access gap. I do a lot of work with startups and researchers who are inventing something new and in many cases transformative. They engage me to help them find partners, licensees for their technologies or buyers for their companies.  There are still many companies who – like Kodak – are in the throws of a digital transition (healthcare, publishing, retailing, etc.) – that are not easy to approach or make is difficult to penetrate using a labyrinth of gatekeepers. Some companies are trying to change their ways by moving labs or outposts to Boston/Cambridge, NYC or Silicon Valley. Those outposts are designed with more open doors and staffed with people who’s job it is to interact with the innovation community. GE, who is moving their headquarters to Boston from CT, just expanded their proposed headquarters building to add more “convener space” and a digital foundry (The Boston Globe).  CVS has opened a new Digital Innovation Lab in Boston (Fast Company).

Companies facing a digital transition or a disruptive change in their market with new competitors and business models need to not just create cool meeting spaces – they need to open themselves up to engagement. That engagement can be messy – requires time to talk to people that may not help you meet next quarter’s revenue goal – but they can give you first looks at what is coming.  If a startup or researcher reaches out to you and thinks that they have something that might be of interest – take the call, return the email – stay for cocktails after your panel rather than running to catch a plane or go back to your office. You will likely both learn and benefit from the interaction and it could be your opportunity to connect with someone that may see the future more clearly than you!

Also posted on LinkedIn here.