“It felt like starting a startup,” said Blake Patton on Tuesday night when he was asked to reflect back on the start of Engage, a corporate venture platform housed at Tech Square Ventures.
Patton, alongside Georgia Tech’s President Emeritus Dr. Bud Peterson and Invesco President and CEO Marty Flanagan, were some of the key people who believed early on that Georgia Tech and the wider Atlanta business ecosystem could support a new kind of innovation lab that connected Fortune 500s with up-and-coming startups.
Connecting enterprise startups, corporate venture partners, and university researchers was certainly a new idea when Engage launched in 2017. Five years later, that “startup” venture platform has become a staple of the Southeast’s technology ecosystem. The likes of Chick-fil-A, Wellstar, Goldman Sachs, and other Fortune 500s have signed on as corporations look to tap into Atlanta’s startup ecosystem and talent pool.
Five Years Of Unique Engagement
Corporate innovation has changed drastically over the last decade. While firms of all sizes work to fill digital innovation gaps, standalone innovation centers have largely fallen out of favor.
For Dr. Bud Peterson, Georgia Tech’s President Emeritus, the program fills an important need for startups and corporations alike.
“We can think about 25 or 30 years ago when AT&T, Bell Labs, HP, and other corporations had large corporate innovation labs…and they just looked at ideas for ideas sake. Engage serves as this innovation incubator for all of these companies together so they don’t have to have the whole [corporate innovation lab] themselves,” Peterson told a press group at a five-year celebration party that took place this week.
“Sometimes I think of Engage as almost like a solution market,” said Peterson, adding that the platform allows for the exchange of ideas – and ultimately contracts – between startups and corporations.
As Flanagan, Patton, and Peterson reflected on the first five years of Engage, it was clear that they believed such a program was only possible in a city like Atlanta.
Growth of the program required buy-in from a research institute like Georgia Tech and a large pool of Fortune 500 companies across diverse industry segments.
What makes Engage unique is that it is not just about putting startups in the room with corporate executives, according to Patton.
“Everyone from the outside sees us as a fast lane to an introduction, but it’s so much more than that. We’re providing coaching to both sides of the equation. We’re helping the big companies understand how to design an appropriate pilot or engagement with a startup for success. And we’re helping those startups interpret the feedback that they’re getting from those large companies and determine what they should invest their time and energy in,” said Patton.
Engage By The Numbers
Engage’s portfolio boasts 75 startups across multiple industry verticals. Those startups, Patton said, have signed 116 contracts with corporate innovation sponsors like The Home Depot, Cox Enterprises, Delta, and UPS.
One of Engage’s long-standing venture partners is Atlanta-based Invesco. During the fifth anniversary event, Invesco President and CEO Marty Flanagan reflected on Engage’s role in Invesco’s growth strategy moving forward.
“Engage is helping to accelerate our innovation agenda,” said Flanagan after the panel, adding that Invesco has signed contracts with 11 of Engage’s portfolio companies so far.
But for Flanagan, the Engage program has done more for the local business ecosystem.
“We learn from Delta, UPS, and Home Depot. We are in different industries and we’re all focused on different technologies and different innovations at different times. But there are a number of overlapping ideas,” added Flanagan.
Engage portfolio companies are tackling enterprise-level challenges in fintech, future of work, supply chain, cybersecurity, climate, and other key industry verticals.
Startups in the Engage program have gone on and raised $2.5 billion in outside capital and created 3,000 jobs. 70% of Engage portfolio startups are headquartered in the Southeast.
Engage’s five year anniversary and celebration of growth comes at a time when the startup world has seen a general drop in the amount of investment pouring in. VCs have become more judicious as market conditions shift and investors expect more economic headwinds entering 2023. However, Engage remains optimistic that their model can help corporations and startups alike navigate uncertainty ahead.
“Great companies are born in good times and bad times. What all companies need, regardless of capital, is access to customers and markets. So I think everything about Engage is built for these times,” added Patton.