The Ecosystem: corporate accelerators are unlocking innovation for big business

21 Nov 2023 | News

Sponsoring a start-up accelerator is an increasingly popular route for large companies to tap into the latest technologies and get preferential rights to in-license potential products

While start-up accelerator programmes are entirely focused on helping founders on their way to market, corporate accelerators are also looking to provide feedstock and new products for the large companies that sponsor them.

Benefits include early access to technologies on the brink of commercialisation, improved in-house expertise and the chance to form solid relationships with future partners. Running an accelerator also raises a company’s profile, signalling to the market and the ecosystem at large that it is actively involved in innovation.

Green energy company Ørsted set up its accelerator Ørsted Propel in 2022, as part of its outreach to universities, start-ups and others in the industry “Propel is specifically targeted at start-ups, to see which technologies are already at a stage where we can think about commercialising them, even if they are not yet at the commercial scale,” said Mattijs Bolk, head of Ørsted’s ventures and open innovation hub in the Netherlands. “So, further work is required, either to grow the idea, or to grow the business.”

Meanwhile, the biotech company AiCuris is currently running the fourth round of its accelerator programme, AiCubator. “The main objective of our programme is to get in touch with projects that are within our core strategic focus, are complementary to our internal development pipeline and might bring new expertise and technologies into the company,” said Andreas Kühbacher, senior manager for innovation and alliances at the company. “They should be close enough to what we do in-house that we can contribute to the project and establish synergies, but come with a competitive advantage over the industry.”

Ørsted develops, constructs, and operates offshore and onshore wind farms, solar farms, energy storage facilities, renewable hydrogen, green fuel facilities, and bioenergy plants. It set up Ørsted Propel in collaboration Rockstart in the Netherlands, an early-stage investor that runs a range of start-up accelerator programmes.

Offering start-ups an accelerator programme is different from other types of cross company collaborations, Bolk said. “We are not only scouting and selecting winning ideas, but offering them a business maturation step,” he said. “This is also another way for us to get to know them better, and to have our experts in discussion with the start-up, in one-on-one sessions.”

The first round of Ørsted Propel was focused on integration to ensure intermittent renewable energy sources can connect to the electricity grid in a way that provides a steady and predictable supply. This includes energy storage technologies, but also systems for predicting and managing supply to the grid.

“At the moment, storing electricity and selling it at a later time is not part of Ørsted’s core business, but we do see parties stepping in,” Bolk said. “When that market matures, it becomes a business enabler for us as well, and so this offers us a first pick of the technologies we feel complement our core business the most.”

Eight start-ups from across Europe were selected from more than 150 applications. These were Cactos and Geyser Batteries from Finland; Ocean Swell Energy from Denmark; Phelas, Suena and Think RE from Germany; Real Cabon Tech from Poland; and RFC Power from the UK.

The programme involved training and workshops, mentoring and connecting the start-ups with relevant people in Ørsted’s partner networks, such as technical experts, investors, and corporate partners.

Global energy mix

“On top of the business acceleration programme we can offer technical and market expertise,” Bolk said. “We can offer scale, and we can think about a solution that is relevant not just for a specific use somewhere in the world, but as part of the global energy mix.”

Going into the accelerator, the start-ups retain their freedom to develop both the technology and the business direction. “There are absolutely no ties on paper,” Bolk said. “We don’t invest in them, and they remain independent.” However, the relationship is expected to be strong. “We try to help them, we try to learn from them, and that’s the immediate return that we are after.”

While the start-ups selected for the first round of Propel are working on different technologies, the idea of including competitors was considered. That might be particularly interesting where the technology is the same, but the business model is different, for example where one company is working on a large scale from the outset, while another is looking at a more gradual, modular roll-out.

“It might take longer for the second start-up to be relevant at our scale, but then they have a higher chance of success, because they can already make money on a smaller scale,” Bolk said. “We would like to see both start-ups mature and make it, because the amount of system integration we need and the market for energy storage is immense.”

Four of the companies were selected for further collaboration with Ørsted at the end of the Propel programme: Phelas, RFC Power, Suena, and Geyser Batteries. The aim is to help these start-ups further reduce technological and market risks, and to accelerate market adoption at a commercial-scale.

That might involve formal agreements to run pilot projects for the technology, leading to investment and a first right to buy the technology, or a looser collaboration. “We can also explore a specific use case for one of our existing asset projects, just to learn in a bit more depth what the synergies are, and how we can help each other,” Bolk said.

It is this stage in the initiative, with the switch from acceleration to negotiation, that can prove challenging. “We are trying to close the gap between fast-moving, agile start-ups, and the procurement procedures, IT security and other factors that a big corporate has to work with,” Bolk said. “And unless we can keep up, start-ups will jump on another opportunity if it is more urgent and more relevant.”

Exposure to new technologies is key for Ørsted as is building relationships with the people that develop them. Some 25-30 of its employees involved in system integration took part in Propel, and that continues in the follow-up phase. “A handful of those experts are still working with the start-ups, and they can expand their knowledge very rapidly on these specific technologies,” Bolk said. “That means we can better assess future technologies in the same domain, so that is a strong benefit.”

It also helps to maintain Ørsted’s profile. “Being recognised as an innovative company is very important to us, and plays a part, for example, in attracting new talent.”

Ørsted is currently exploring options for a second round of Propel. "The value of this programme exceeded expectations, and we showed that the format really works, for us and the start-ups,” Bolk said. “It's definitely something we're keen to repeat in the future.”

Structuring collaborations

AiCuris was founded in 2006 when German pharma company Bayer divested its anti-infectives portfolio. Headquartered in Wuppertal, Germany, its lead product Prevymis for preventing reactivation of dormant cytomegalovirus in immunocompromised transplant patients is marketed by Merck, following a 2012 licensing agreement. The lead programme in the inhouse pipeline, pritelivir for treating drug-resistant herpes simplex infections, is in phase III clinical development. Following on from this, the company has a preclinical pipeline of anti-infectives for treating infections in  immunocompromised patients.

The AiCubator was launched in 2020 as a way of organising collaborations with university researchers and start-ups with early stage projects. “We had collaborations before, but they were rather unstructured. The AiCubator brings more structure and more speed to the activity,” said Kühbacher. “It also gives our collaborative efforts more visibility and makes it easier to identify new potential partners.”

Each year the company issues an open call for projects focusing and selects up to three parties to join the AiCubator. Over three years, each project receives financial support, of €10,000 in the latest round, and advice from AiCuris, for which the company claims first right of refusal to in-license potential drugs.

The advice covers aspects of drug development, such as medicinal chemistry, toxicology and clinical trial design that need to be factored in from the earliest stages of discovery. “These are areas where you need the expertise to be found in an experienced company, like AiCuris,” Kühbacher said. “A small team can attempt this alone, but they would need to rely on a lot of very expensive consultants.”

No distinction is made between academic and start-up projects, but research should be ready to shape up into something that can fit into the bottom end of the AiCuris pipeline. “It should be a project where the potential benefit for patients is clearly considered and commercialisation is foreseeable. In the best case, we can see that it is a candidate for in-licensing in the next three years or so,” Kühbacher said.

While both academics and start-ups are welcome, the process tends to go more smoothly with start-ups. “For a start-up, this kind of project is likely to be the core focus, whereas a university group may have other priorities,” Kühbacher said. Communication can also be a longer process with academics. “Start-ups tend to already know better what expertise they need to reach the next stage of development, whereas university groups are usually still a bit earlier in the innovation process.”

Early rounds of AiCubator were relatively broad, seeking interesting leads for antiviral and antibacterial therapies in a wide range of infections, as well as new platform technologies.

Academic winners have mainly come from Germany, and include teams from the University of Duisburg and Essen, University Hospital Erlangen, and the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf. Start-ups have come from further afield, and include Prokaryotics, a US spin-out from Merck & Co, Selmod from Switzerland, and Madam Therapeutics from the Netherlands.

This year AiCuris took the strategic decision to focus solely on immunocompromised patients who are more vulnerable to infections and more often develop severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms. The fourth AiCubator call, which is open until 31 December shares this focus, seeking treatments for viral infections in immunocompromised patients.

“When the AiCubator was initiated, we called broadly for projects that could be interesting,” Kühbacher said. “Over time, we noticed that we can provide higher quality support for projects that are closer to our strategic interests.”

After three years of operation, the AiCubator is just reaching the stage where its early projects are reaching a decision point for in-licensing. And while some are still running, others have not made it this far.

“With some university groups or start-ups, the specific project did not, in the end, lead to in-licensing, but the relationship continues, and we are working together with them in other contexts. Building a network with excellent scientists and partners is an additional benefit for us, and as is always the case with innovations, it’s rarely the first idea that succeeds in the end,” Kühbacher said.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem…

  • Glox Therapeutics, a 2023 spin-out from the universities of Glasgow and Oxford in the UK, has  secured £4.3 million in seed funding to develop antimicrobials targeting drug-resistant bacteria. The company will use the funding to establish laboratories in Oxford and Glasgow, expand its team, and accelerate its development programme. The funding round was led by the Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund and Scottish Enterprise.
  • A permanent magnet that does not contain rare earth elements has been successfully tested under a project set up by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s Raw Materials community. The Passenger project has run an e-scooter and a water pump motor with magnets developed from strontium ferrite, a powder that can be produced from raw materials widely available in Europe. The performance of the prototype motor is reported to match that of conventional motors based on rare earth magnets.

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