February 17, 2021

Innovation Is the Tool That Makes Us Relevant for the Future

An interview with our client Sebastian Greiss, Heading Startup Partnering at Siemens Mobility, on why a successful collaboration needs good expectation management.

Sebastian, you’re responsible for innovation at Siemens Mobility. How would you describe your job duties to your grandparents?

I connect startups and big corporations. I look for small companies with amazing technology and see how we as a big corporate can partner with them to develop solutions for the market together. For example, we found a startup whose smart microphone can analyze and interpret sounds in a very detailed way. In the context of a collaboration, we applied the technology to our machines in order to predict the health of a machine by its sound.

What’s the main difference between how innovation used to be developed versus how you foster innovation today?

Our world is changing faster than it used to be. Therefore, we are opening up to the startup ecosystems in order to partner up and see how we can jointly cope with the high speed in the market.

How would you assess the importance of innovation for Siemens?

We see a huge change in the whole mobility sector with numerous new technologies and trends, like autonomous driving or artificial intelligence. For my organization, innovation is the tool that makes us relevant for the future. Only by being innovative, we can maintain our position in the market and our relevance for the customers. At the end of the day, we don’t need to do everything on our own. Every company should specialize in the things that they do best. Once you define what you want to do and what you focus your resources on, you are able to open up, partner up with others, and succeed.

From your experience, and from a corporate perspective, when and why does it make sense to collaborate with startups?

Startups have an appetite for risks. They look at challenges with huge risks and try to solve them. On the other hand, the corporate or incumbent, is eager to reduce risk. Therefore, it makes sense to combine the two, partner them up, and share the risk. As a corporate, we can transform the early ideas and developments of startups into scalable solutions and bring them to the market.

So when you as a corporate person are working with startups, what are the challenges you are facing? Which prejudices towards the big corporations have you come across, while working with young founders?

Speed is one of the biggest issues. Startups assume that corporations are slow in decision-making. But while the startup is eager to move fast, we are eager to integrate technology in a proper way. Aligning those two expectations is difficult. For a successful collaboration, you must have good expectation management. Make sure that the startup understands why a decision may take longer than they are used to. And make clear that once the decision has been made, it is profound and can be executed. And actually, we proved in a couple of projects that we are also able to move fast, to even kick-start a project in just two weeks.

What does the working relationship look like? Does the startup move in? Do you work in a lab jointly as long as the project goes or is that all happening remotely?

Even before Covid, we were working virtually in most cases. Startups are used to working virtually and since we have the ambition to work together with the best startup, it’s in most cases not located around the corner. In some rare cases where we need to implement technology in our test field in Munich, we invite the startup to do the installation and implementation. Usually, we scout a startup, we meet with the technical head once, and then work together and exchange data and information remotely.

Can you share your biggest innovation success story with us?

When we were developing autonomous driving technology for railways, we needed railway video footage to train new software. Unfortunately, we were lacking footage of objects that rarely appear on railways, like bicycles. Instead of collecting new data over months, we collaborated with a startup that was able to create synthetical objects for the existing videos. This doubled the accuracy of detecting these objects and was done within just a month thanks to the collaboration. This success story is my favorite because this small project leapfrogged our technology and had a huge impact on our organization. And it actually led to a long-term collaboration with the startup.

So, we talked about successes. What about an example of a failed partnership?

I remember one project that took weeks to set up. Just when we were ready to sign contracts, our organization was reorganized. The technical expert was substituted – a huge change and challenge for the project. We as a startup partner unit were not part of the reorganization and could transfer all the knowledge to the new technical expert. In the end, we managed to bring the project to life and make it successful.

Do you still experience the stereotypes like men in ties on the one side of the table and geeks in shorts and t-shirts on the other side?

Honestly, I don’t see such situations anymore. At Siemens, it’s not like people are walking around wearing ties. What I’m experiencing is that people are open to the new world of work and focus on substance instead of looks. When an entrepreneur talks about the details of his technology, our experts listen carefully. They don’t care whether he or she is wearing a t-shirt or a suit. They talk on equal terms about a technology that both parties are fascinated by. That may also be because Siemens Mobility is a technically driven company, but I feel like we are on a good path for collaboration in an open ecosystem.

You’ve lived in Silicon Valley where the mantra “Fail often and fast” is truly lived by. Why do you think German organizations still struggle so much with this kind of failure culture, and how can we all help to promote this approach more?

I studied at the Technical University of Munich and did some of my research at Stanford University. It was probably one of the most impressive times I had in my life. When I was deep diving and talking to people, I realized that they are really thinking differently there. Even at University, they worked with the mindset to do ten different trials, fail fast, and learn. I really loved it. In Germany, that mindset is becoming increasingly popular, but most managers have not yet realized that they need to train their company’s innovation ability like a muscle. If a company’s innovation muscle is trained, it will be ready for a new technology as soon as it pops up. If not, it’s nearly impossible to turn the organization around because too many forces make it cumbersome. Only by adapting the culture of failure, by trying to fail fast, and learn fast, an organization becomes open to the changes that are coming faster than before.

So, how do you actually train that muscle?

Organizations learn by doing. Our team is constantly asking our business units: Have you thought about working together with a startup on this? Once employees start engaging in startup collaborations instead of doing desk research, the learning curve is exponential. By making new experiences and sharing them within the organization, everyone gets to understand the latest trends and apps.

How do you turn employees into intrapreneurs?

Every organization has employees who have that entrepreneurial thinking in their personality. Giving them the freedom to act on that is always valuable. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of talking, educating people, trying to give freedom in order to try out things. Even if it might not be successful.

In your view, what makes a good entrepreneur?

The best entrepreneur has a strong vision – a clear picture of how the future will unfold. That one story will create an impact and make people – employees or investors – buy in. Additionally, a good entrepreneur must be able to execute very well. Be aware that you need to have both the vision and execution skills in order to be successful. And if you don’t have both in your own DNA, make sure to have it in your founding team.

Three Tips for Startups Who Want to Collaborate With Corporates Successfully

Have your solution or product ready. People need to relate to your product instead of just having a brief idea of it. We want to bring the product to our customers as soon as possible. If you just present an idea, it is very hard to make long term plans. But if you have your solution or product ready, we can deploy or integrate it in our products quickly. That is a huge plus.

Do your due diligence on us. Not every startup should work with every corporate and vice versa. We do our due diligence on the startup and startups should also carefully investigate the corporate. Is the organization ready? Can they handle the project or are they just playing around with it? Both parties should always have the final collaboration goal to create a project that can go to market and create volume.

Look at the cultural fit. Due to the fact that we’re looking mainly at deep tech, we are very technical driven at Siemens Mobility. In my experience, in most cases we will align and have the same thinking at the end of the day. However, it is important for startups to look at the cultural fit of a corporate.

Three Top Tips on What Corporates Can Do to Foster a Fruitful Cooperation With Startups:

Define your reason why. When I am engaging in a startup collaboration with a business unit, I’m asking the why-question. Why do we want to do this? And what is the long-term vision behind the collaboration? It is important to not just be in love with a startup’s technology. We need to be serious about bringing a solution to the customer and think about the long-term goal of the collaboration at that first stage.

Find the right partner. A collaboration is not about working with the startup next door. We have the ambition to work with the best startup for each individual project. Therefore, we first define our specific problem and then look for the best startups across Europe and the US. We assess the startups to make sure that they work as a team and are properly equipped. Once we have found the right partner and finalized the due diligence, the collaboration starts.

Establish a team that understands both worlds – startups and corporates. That team must have an extensive network in the organization and be up-to-date on the latest needs and wants from the technical experts. Thus, they can support the startups to navigate the complex world of big corporates but also support the business units to cope with the different mentalities of startups.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how we can support you in corporate innovation, we’re looking forward to hearing from you!

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