IBM doing seed-stage acceleration the right way: IBM SmartCamp

Posted: May 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: posts | Tags: , , | 1 Comment »

Back in April, I posted about the IBM SmartCamp initiative taking place this year. I recently connected with Eric Apse, the IBM Venture Capital Group partner for the Boston area, who is leading the program in that city, to learn more about the initiative. IBM SmartCamp will run on June 3rd in Boston. Dates for other cities are on the program’s blog.

In short, it’s one of the most innovative efforts that I’ve heard of to align startups with a larger enterprise. IBM has really thought this one through. While there’s certainly a lot of potential upside to IBM if it helps accelerate high potential startups through this program, the success of the program is also being measured from the participating startups’ perspectives, so IBM has their priorities in order.

Eric provided some details on how the program will work. SmartCamp is being run in select cities with strong entrepreneurial communities. In each city, there is a one-day program, bringing the selected startups together with a number of mentors and advisors. The program is structured interaction with the 25 mentors – 45 minute rotations with 5 mentors per rotation. Then at 3pm, the companies will present in a competition format. (The company that wins from each city will be invited to Dublin, Ireland, for a global competition in November – the winner there is deemed the world’s ‘smartest startup’.) Then following each of the city program days, the companies get 12 weeks of mentoring through IBM – TechStars will be helping to offer mentoring in Boston, Seedcamp in Europe.

During the mentoring, IBM places the startups in contact with internal connections that are aligned with the companies. The goal of these interactions is focused on helping the startups figure out the right go-to-market strategy. Internally, IBM is also putting together a cross-discipline board of Smarter Planet stakeholders to review the ventures and make decisions on which startups align with IBM’s initiatives and thus further partnerships should be made.

I asked Eric about how SmartCamp is being measured by IBM. After all, most business initiatives are measured by specific metrics and I was curious what IBM would be using to determine whether SmartCamp had been an effective investment. Eric explained that there were no specific metrics for SmartCamp’s success. Instead, IBM is more focused on what kinds of success IBM can drive from the program, whether that success is funding for a participating company, a partnership with IBM, or another kind of success for a participating venture. Certainly IBM is keeping a close eye on the ventures to figure out which would be best for IBM to partner with or acquire, but they’re taking a very long-term view on the success of the initiative, more around on how IBM can access these markets through startup partners over the long term.

Eric said that this is very similar to how IBM’s Venture Capital initiative has been running for over 10 years, taking a milestone-based approach towards measuring its success.

On the whole, I was extremely impressed by what I learned about IBM’s SmartCamp initiative. The relationships with the mentoring programs (i.e. TechStars, Seedcamp), give the participating ventures important opportunities to get advice and feedback, in addition to powerful networks. And the internal connections to Smarter Planet stakeholders will be important for the participating companies, as well. But, I think the most telling aspect of the program is how it is being measured by IBM.

Instead of the typical corporate world, quarterly management dashboard, IBM is taking the right view on the program. Seed-stage acceleration isn’t something that works on Wall Street’s calendar – it takes time, and there are many twists and turns in the road, as I’ve learned first-hand. But, over the long term, you can build a program that helps convert ideas into sustainable ventures and transformative products with the right mentors, connections, and process. It appears that IBM has put a lot of thought into what kind of process would be most effective – not only for Big Blue, but also for the participating companies. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs are going to find that hugely valuable for their ventures.