Bengaluru: An NGO providing mid-day meals to school children across India came to Accenture a couple of years ago with a simple query: how do we feed more children?
The consultant looked at the supply chain and then worked with three startups from different domains for a solution. One startup used data from IoT sensors to streamline cooking processes and monitor the quality of food. Another one used machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to predict the demand for food. And a third startup used blockchain to put feedback from schools on a distributed ledger in a tamper-proof manner. Together they helped improve delivery, reduce cost and enable more children to be fed.
AI, machine learning (ML), Internet of Things (IoT), artificial and virtual reality (AR/VR), blockchain—all these new age technologies create a bigger impact when combined with one another. The same thing applies to B2B (business-to-business) startups from deep tech domains whose value proposition to any enterprise client goes up when they form alliances to combine two or more products for a solution.
That is one of the ways in which a system integrator like Accenture bridges the chasm between startups and large enterprises.
“Those are some of the mindshift changes we have been able to bring to startups," says Avnish Sabharwal, managing director of Accenture Ventures and Open Innovation in India and the Middle-East. “We tell them, ‘Don’t go and talk about your product; talk about solving a problem. And in doing that, maybe you need more than your own product’."
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. For a startup that translates to, going beyond proof of concept to signing deals.
Accenture has engaged with around 250 startups in India and deployed over 100 of them across its clients, says Sabharwal.
Many of the clients are global companies, which saves Indian startups the considerable cost of entering markets abroad. At the same time, Sabharwal feels frustrated that things haven’t moved faster and so many projects never reach “serious deployments".
There are several reasons for this. To begin with, the structure within Accenture itself can be challenging. The open innovation and ventures teams discover startups and engage them in pilots. Then it’s the sales team or “client team", as Accenture calls it, which negotiates deals with clients.
The client team is more comfortable with internal innovation teams or large partner companies like Microsoft and SAP than a bunch of startups. Even if that hurdle is crossed, onboarding a startup with Accenture’s procurement and contracting team can be another wall.
“It’s the elephant in the room," admits Sabharwal. “Innovation at scale is my dream, but we haven’t reached there. There is so much value, but a lot of it gets lost in navigating the internal organization and other things."
Nevertheless, a lot has changed from the early days of open innovation when it was a grind to push one startup after another at the sales team. This began to change when startups helped win major deals for the sales team with their agility in making an minimum viable product (MVP) and their cost-competitiveness. Now it’s turning into a pull model, says Sabharwal. Often when an request for proposal (RFP) comes in, the open innovation team is the first to be contacted to see if plugging startups into some components will improve the pitch.
“If you’re creating value for the client team, they want it," he says.
The journey began five years ago when Sabharwal proposed engaging with startups at a strategy meeting. There were a lot of naysayers at the start, sceptical of the open innovation model and what startups could bring to large enterprises.
The startup ecosystem was also evolving. “There were only a handful of good B2B deep tech startups, which I used to take everywhere with me. Now there are hundreds," says Sabharwal.
But most of them still have a long way to go for maturity. “While they’re great innovators, they don’t have delivery DNA," says Sabharwal. “Hopefully, as more of our startups mature, they will realise it’s not just about making a great product. Ultimately, you have to deploy it at scale."
Just as navigating corporate structures can be a grind, it can be frustrating to open the door to a corporate client for a startup, only to find that “the product that was brilliant in a proof of concept is not scaling in different geographies or functions."