How the Spirit of Silicon Valley Is Infusing Corporate Events

Open innovation challenges, hackathons, and accelerators are shaking up the traditional B2B event landscape with outside-of-the-box thinking.

There was palpable energy, excitement and anxiety in air, when five developer teams took the stage at the demo day of Merck’s Open Innovation Challenge in New York. As each developer took their turn in front of a panel of judges, they went on to describe how their voice-enabled solution would transform the lives of people living with diabetes.

A representative from a team from the University of Illinois showed a prototype of a virtual educator designed to improve the mood of patients coping with diabetes-related stress and depressive symptoms. Seattle-based Wellpepper presented a comprehensive, care plan that included a voice-enabled smartscale and foot scanner that would monitor patients for diabetic foot ulcers.

Throughout the course of the developer presentations, the room was high-energy. For many, the gathering—down to the venue with exposed pipes and brick walls plastered with slogans about innovation—was reminiscent of a scene from HBO’s Silicon Valley.

And that, of course, was the point.

A Well of Innovation

In 2017, enterprise companies are looking for new ways to to unlock innovation. One popular strategy is to host programs like Merck’s Open Innovation Challenge, where the goal was to explore how voice-enabled digital solutions could improve the experience of those newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Innovative competitions like this, large brands have found, can be a powerful way to find the best solution for an industry saturated with ideas from people who are, to simplify, like-minded. Demo days for these competitions are also a way to unite established corporations with the innovators buzzing in the startup world.

“Large scale, multi-stage challenges are a great mechanism for big companies and government agencies to connect with early-stage technology companies,” explained Sara Holoubek, CEO and founder of Luminary Labs, the company that ran the challenge for Merck.

This is not Holoubek’s first time finding success in the space between corporations and technology companies. Alongside her team at Luminary Labs, Holoubek has created similar competitive open innovation programs that have awarded over $5 million in cash prizes to innovators. In a prize competition from the U.S Department of Education, the winner was a project called Osso VR—a surgical training platform that uses real-life simulations to train medical professionals.

OSSO VR, winner of the EDSIM Challenge from the U.S. Department of Education

Similarly, as part of the Mood Challenge, hosted by the New Venture Fund and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, contestants submitted “ResearchKit” projects to help researchers better understand human emotions. The prize went to a system for understanding mood and neurocognitive functioning in bipolar disorder, BiAffect, which used keystroke dynamics, such as typing speed and errors, to track and predict mood episodes. As the contest winner, BiAffect won $200,000 to help further develop the kit and launch it in the App Store.

Companies outside of the research realm, such as PfizerCitibankTarget and Walt Disney, are also working with a new generation of strategy and innovation consultancies like Luminary Labs. For these companies, similar innovative competitions expose its executive teams to the type of talent and work environment that breeds creativity in startups.

Something for Everyone

It is hardly surprising that this search for outside-of-the-box thinking is shaking up the traditional B2B event landscape. With new formats, ranging from hackathons to open innovation challenges and accelerator programs, larger enterprise organizations are learning to innovate, create prototypes, test, learn, and iterate at the speed of agile tech startups.

Attendees, especially from startups, can be seen hacking, jamming and raving at events that host bootcamp sessions, pitch and demo days. While attendees gain access to the people and resources they need to develop their products and solutions, organizing companies get an opportunity to work with brilliant tech minds and disruptive technologies.

“We are impressed with the variety of inventive digital solutions developed by teams participating in our challenge,” Tony Alvarez, president of Merck’s Primary Care Business and Customer Strategy, said of the event.

Startups, too, value the experience. “Almost every startup we work with tells us that what they learned at [the] virtual accelerator was worth more than the prize money they received,” Holoubek remarked.

Events expose companies of all sizes to new individuals and ideas, however, different event types work better than others for targeting specific goals. While hackathons may make sense for companies that want to recruit software developers or encourage the developer community to think about a particular issue, innovation challenges like that hosted by Merck, work better for companies that can wait six months or longer to develop more sophisticated solutions they wish to take to market.

“Large scale open innovation challenges are longer and complex,” Holoubek explained, but the outcome is also potentially much greater.

The process for developing a larger-scale innovation program looks something like this. First, the company must identify and articulate a problem. Then, they set up a challenge and invite applicants to submit their ideas. From here, they narrow the participant pool to those who will enter the accelerator phase and compete at the demo day event.

“Almost every startup we work with tells us that what they learned at [the] virtual accelerator was worth more than the prize money they received.”
— Sara Holoubek, CEO and founder of Luminary Labs

After a rigorous vetting process—at Merck only five out of 96 applicants from 82 countries made it to the virtual accelerator phase of the competition—finalists are able to present their solutions, pitting their ideas against one another.

“These challenges might not be easy, but they create tangible value beyond simply generating ideas,” Holoubek explained. “The winner of one of our challenges, who filed a number of patents, sold some of his company’s assets to another company that will redeploy them for a different use.”

What’s more, events can connect market-ready tech startups with corporate executives looking to purchase new products and processes. “Along with our annual conference, we host an exclusive event, Market Connect Live, to connect healthcare organizations with tech startups to discuss a potential commercial partnership,” Alexandra Camesas, associate director of Catalyst at Health 2.0 said.

The event serves to connect healthcare organizations with vetted technological solutions that will better the patient experience and the healthcare system at large.

Go Where the Innovators Are

Bridging large companies with agile tech communities is an important first step to developing innovative solutions. Yet, according to Holoubek, it is also important for enterprise organizations to go where startup founders spend their time. Today, this “place” can mean visiting their virtual and social communities.

While many large companies make announcements through press releases, this strategy doesn’t always work with startups and researchers. “We need to create buzz on social media, write newsletters, and enter university and innovation pools,” Holoubek emphasized.

When companies such as Merck look beyond their standard press release and organize open innovation programs, the result is a market-ready solution that can enhance the lives of patients worldwide.