Traditionally, a startup accelerator is just what it sounds like — a fast-moving program that accelerates an early-stage company through ideation, customer discovery and branding, and go-to-market with successful culmination being a full-fledged product. During the process founders might see product pivots or learn about an untapped sector of the market, but they are largely focused on building that initial product.
So why would established corporate giants like Coca-Cola, CAE (previously Canadian Aviation Electronics), and now Mercedes-Benz USA, want to send their employees to work and train alongside an accelerator cohort? For these companies and more, it’s because of a unique innovation process Dr. Merrick Furst, leader of the Flashpoint@Georgia Tech accelerator, has developed.
He calls it Formative Leadership.
“When we look back over the years and see what has made the most difference, we’ve discovered three difference types of innovation,” says Dr. Furst, whose work using behavioral economics for startup engineering earned him Georgia Tech’s award for Outstanding Achievement in Research Innovation.
Dr. Furst explains that the first type of innovation is simply getting better at being yourself — i.e. Mercedes getting better at making cars. The second level is “transformative” innovation, where you literally change what you are. In startup terms, a pivot.
But the third level, the most valuable to corporations, is what Dr. Furst and the Flashpoint process calls “formative.”
“There’s this type of formative innovation, and it’s hard, but it’s what most successful startups are able to do. They find a new form,” says Dr. Furst.
“We’ve learned a lot about the principles and process that make it possible to find that new form. Now, we can do this kind of formative innovation work in a new way,” says Dr. Furst. “With corporations, we can show employees this process and provide them a space to learn how to go through this process. And doing it in a place with other startups around, that’s a big plus.”
So this summer, at least three Mercedes IT employees will train alongside the founders in their eighth cohort, starting in August. For the next six months of these employees’ lives, Dr. Furst says that “their day job is innovation.”
The process clearly works — in the six years since its inception, Flashpoint graduates have raised over $300 million and are, in aggregate, valued at over $1 billion. Recognizable names that have gone through the accelerator include Ionic Security, Pindrop, and Springbot.
Furthermore, Dr. Furst says that after Coca-Cola employees learned formative leadership principles, their work resulted in the development of new products brought to market.
“They do all this in a very intense way, which gives them a new capability and a new leadership mindset that makes it possible to more effectively innovate. That’s certainly what we’ve seen in the companies that have come from Flashpoint, and what we’re seeing with our corporate partners as well.”
And these few employees can bring the innovation mindset to the whole company, says Dr. Furst.
“It’s not like once you learn and implement, it’s limited to one team. This is something that gets reflected across the whole company — innovation that makes existing process better, innovation that allows you to have the next-generation business opportunities.”
Besides leadership development, Mercedes may gain even more from the startups they will be exposed to through the Flashpoint partnership. Dr. Furst says the next cohort could include several startups in the mobility space. Flashpoint graduates also include trucking payment platform MyLumper and Vehcon, a data analytics platform for the automotive industry.
But when considering the process Dr. Furst describes, there really is no difference between corporate innovation and startup development. It all comes down to teaching individuals, be they entrepreneurs or Fortune 500 team members, to think beyond the obvious to solve old problems.
“I used to think the point of Flashpoint was to advance projects from point A to point B faster— that’s traditionally what accelerators do,” says Dr. Furst. “Now, I’ve realized what we really do is take people who have projects and develop their ability to lead those projects.”