A variety of seed-beds is helping banks to confront change


The internet has thrown transactions into a cauldron of change

In a world in which innovation is mandatory, corporates are using and creating opportunities to explore new technologies that could influence their business models and even change their culture. And banking is in the spotlight.

The financial world is facing an earthquake of disruption as mobiles begin to become managers of people’s money; and as they play an increasing part in almost all kinds of transactions. Walmart’s discovery that as many as half its customers who order goods online could be in its stores at the time has highlighted the role of mobiles in transactions; and the rapidly growing volume of peer-to-peer transactions on the internet has highlighted the way in which the internet can displace intermediaries.

The internet is already playing a rapidly increasing role in banking, and the banks are now busily exploring ways in which their online activities will develop; and they are readily looking at innovations that SMEs have to offer. Consequently London is the place to which to bring your ideas.

Fintech Lab London has just completed its second iteration – in which it brought five SMEs to Canary Wharf, each with a bit of wizardry for the financial industry that might be of interest to the banks – its aim, to help them introduce their products through a 13-week development programme in collaboration with the banks. Level39, its location, sits in the middle of one of the world’s most intensive clusters – in Canary Wharf, so not only can it host intensive development programmes like this one; but it can also provide incubation space for the best of them to grow on.

Now Startupbootcamp FinTech is bringing its development programme to London – in partnership with financial institutions including MasterCard and Lloyds Banking Group, which will provide access to a network of industry professionals, and is opening its doors to applicants in August. Innotribe is running the semi-finals of its Startup Challenge competition in London, in which 15 startups and growth-stage companies for the financial industry will pitch for a place in its Finale in Boston later in the year. And Barclays is going a step further in planning to run its own Accelerator – with Techstars later this year; while Banco Sabadell in Barcelona has already done so.

These approaches are about bringing emerging technologies to potential business users, such as 3D printing to the vehicle industry in the East Midlands, TSB grant winners to Life Science businesses in Nottingham, games innovators to Dundee, new playwrights to the National Theatre’s Studio etc. Long ago Mercedes Benz established a culture of encouraging innovative thinking among its suppliers: what is new is the formalisation of this approach, the wider world from which relevant innovations are being sought, and the intensive development programmes like Fintech Lab London and Startupbootcamp FinTech.

May 2014


Unilever’s Open Innovation initiatives as a catalyst


Unilever’s Open Innovation initiatives act as catalyst for new supply chains

Its ‘agent provocateur’ talks about his role as a catalyst in linking  entrepreneurial academics, SMEs and intermediaries to form eco-systems and tap into public funds to become the supply chains that will deliver innovations to Unilever.

Who better to head up your corporate Open Innovation endeavours than a man with the broadest of smiles, irrepressible enthusiasm and a string of patents to his name? Many Corporates no longer fund blue sky research but only development, opines Stephen Barnwell, Unilever’s European Open Innovation Manager. He works only on projects where the Technology Strategy Board is offering grants, competitions or other sources of funding – Unilever puts in only staff time.

His job, he says, is about three things: new supply chains, new supply chains and new supply chains. He seeks to put together eco-systems that will make use of innovations that will deliver the benefits of new products, processes, services or business models to one or more of the many areas that are of interest to Unilever.

He is forever looking for entrepreneurs – of which, he says there are too few. His search starts with universities, where he is looking for entrepreneurial academics with IP that could benefit some part of Unilever, and that can show evidence of being scaleable – among whom he names Liverpool, Manchester, Bangor, Sheffield and Warwick’s Advanced Manufacturing Catapult.

If Technology Transfer Offices are too greedy or too inflexible (and he names some) to accept that Unilever needs to own 100% of the IP in its areas of interest, then if we are probably the best opportunity for the development of that IP and we turn it down, he says, it may possibly never be taken up, and its value will fall away – even to zero.

And he is forever looking for SMEs with similar new concepts or interests and able to take on and develop IP from academia. Once the TSB funding has been won, it can be leveraged with tax breaks in the SME.

The third leg in the eco-system is the intermediary – who will adopt and use the new technology in order to deliver product to Unilever – often one of the partners (he always seeks to work with corporates partners in other sectors, such as Siemens, Akzo Nobel, BAe, Croda, Syngenta and IBM).

Among his fifteen or so current projects (all if possible within a stone’s throw of Port Sunlight) are several in 3D printing – for fabricating components or local variations of them; and about larger sizes, different materials, and more complex structures. Another is in raw materials, for example a new kind of millet for Unilever’s bread business in India; another is in regional distribution (from local suppliers and to local retailers); and one is in super-computing.

While startups tend to focus on IT (many of them with apps and applications on the internet), Unilever has found a way of becoming the engine of technology development on an altogether different scale.

John Whatmore                                                             Copyright Feb 2014