30 June 2017

Mentor: partnerships are a key part of business development

“With increasing focus on innovation and more complex, new technologies, it’s clear to me that partnerships have become key to the development of both established businesses and start-ups. With all the knowledge out there, no one can do it alone,” says the entrepreneur and adviser Anja Hoffmann.

Her focus is to get companies—established as well as new—to look beyond sectors and technologies, to turn ‘hot air’ into real value, and understand that collaboration has to be embedded into the company’s DNA. She passes on this advice on a daily basis in the consulting company Sentio Lab, experiences it first-hand in the start-up Flagit—and as a mentor in Scion DTU science park.

It is necessary to distinguish between value-adding partnerships and PR

Even though partnerships across sectors or focus on innovation are nothing new, Anja Hoffmann has found that there are major challenges in actually creating real value here. Some companies show case innovation initiatives, but often at a closer look, they are nothing more than window dressing. If Danish companies are to strengthen innovation within a global context, there is a need for a clearer distinction between partnerships that foster innovation—as opposed to those that are purely a PR exercise, she says.

“Some companies have created an innovation centre to embrace the latest technologies, trends, and talents—but on closer examination, operations may involve existing systems, and the employees hail from the existing organization.  I’m not saying it’s wrong, but it is important to understand the fundamental dynamics between the existing and the new—and to see the potential in and the challenges between the two. The ability to be critical is perhaps the most important attribute in a time when buzzwords are all over the place,” she says and adds:

“When companies locate the innovation centre away from the company, management should discuss whether this is the right model. Will it lead to diffusion of the existing business knowledge and could our existing knowledge lead to innovation if we created space for new dialogue inside the organization?”

Good partnerships starts with you

Getting off to the right start requires that you start at the level of your own company’s DNA.

“Danish companies are aware of the new technologies that are changing the way we do business. What is interesting is how we actually capitalize on the opportunities this affords us and this depends on the individual business—where are we are in our development? What skills do we possess? And who can help us?” says Anja Hoffmann.

The whole thing may sound as airy as the word innovation itself, which is why she always adopts a highly practical approach.

“Innovation has become a buzzword and disruption is on the government’s agenda. While she finds this encouraging, it is important to understand the dependence on partnerships for success, as idle chatter alone does not boost Denmark’s innovation,” she says and explains:

“First you have to understand your starting point and identify your resources, and how the company is already leveraging partnerships—across units, for example. Then, you need to develop an understanding of the technologies; AI, machine learning, blockchain, for example and select those which may be of significance to the company in the short, medium, and long term,” she says.

Think beyond your own industry and core technology

Anja Hoffmann provides an example: For a medium-sized transport company it is only natural to discuss the perspectives of drones and self-driving trucks. None the less, it is typical for established sectors to view ecosystems in a narrow perspective —transport thinks about transport and retail about retail.

“You need to think across boundaries. With my transport client, we selected blockchain and robotics, for smart contracts and automation aren’t only for the finance sector and factories. You have to be curious about other industries, examine the possibilities that exist, when to make your move, who to collaborate with, conduct experiments with—and whether to employ some extra funding to speed up the process. You need to think through the whole model and the company’s future ecosystem, says Anja Hoffmann.

She therefore uses the word partnerships in the plural. Consistently.

“It’s far from certain that one partner is enough. Some partners make you smarter in relation to technology, some can help you execute—while others will help by continually challenging the way, you do things. For this reason you need to explore different partnership forms,” she says.

Many overlook partnerships with the universities

Anja Hoffmann always encourages companies to outline their ecosystem: Which research environments are there, industries, start-ups and incubator environments—and which enterprises or business models stand out?

“Many overlook the possibility of collaborating with the universities. My transport customer, for example, is in dialogue with a university to learn more about a new technology. This is a unique opportunity to talk to researchers with a completely different mindset. Typically, they have an in-depth interest in and knowledge about a given field. Then it’s up to the company to extract the full potential,” she says and offers a piece of good advice:

”Select the exciting new technologies and trends in your particular fields. Seek out innovation environments such as robotics Valley in Odense or Scion DTU and explore the technologies that are available.”

It’s easy for start-ups to leverage partnerships

But if you are not yet a medium-sized enterprise, are the methods still the same?

”As a rule, the same advice applies to start-ups. They are simply freer, less bound by existing relations, and operations are still in the development phase. But while it’s important to understand the key importance of partnerships, you also have to understand corporate thinking. Things take time, and innovation sometimes requires patience,” says Anja Hoffmann:

“Patience and innovation usually don’t appear in the same sentence. But if both sides understand each other, if corporates gain access to a new dynamic, new knowledge, and a different way of thinking in relation to how they do things and thereby the opportunity to obtain innovation— and start-ups gain access to infrastructure, which they can use to test—they may be lucky and secure funding to develop a pilot.”

This article appeared originally in Danish in the Danish tech startup media TechSavvy.

Boost innovation through university partnerships

Collaborations with technical researchers can help companies leverage new technologies to develop new products or increase the business potential of existing products.

Scion DTU helps companies in the Capital Region to establish such collaborations with DTU-researchers through the project Smart Innovation. So far, we have established +60 collaborative projects divided among 12 different research departments – among others electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and computing.

We experience good results and the effort of creating more university-collaborations within the framework of Smart Innovation continues for the rest of 2017. Companies can apply here.

Read about some case examples here or get an overview of companies that are currently collaborating with DTU.

Companies participating in Smart Innovation are offered:

  • 400 hours of targeted counselling from researchers at DTU
  • Research-based know-how for the development of new or existing products
  • Access to experienced business and leadership competences
  • Specialized business counselling to ensure the commercial impact of the collaboration

Criteria for participating in Smart Innovation

The participating companies co-fund the collaboration by allocating 800 hours to related product development (615 hrs) and business development activities (185 hrs). The target group for Smart Innovation is established companies with 8-10 full-time employees, who work with either hardware and/or “smart”, “green” or “health” technologies.

  • Small and medium sized companies in Region Hovedstaden
  • Possess necessary resources
  • Ready for innovation


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