Innovation partnerships discussed during next to last day of “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival”

Launch Tennessee’s “36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival” wraps-up its 10-day “virtual run” today with another series of panels.

During yesterday’s program, the “Scaling” theme continued from Wednesday with panels on “Advancing Strategy with Innovation Partnerships” and one with the provocative play on words of “Fuller Speed Ahead with FreightWaves,” the latter featuring Craig Fuller, the fast-growing company’s Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

We tuned-in on the partnerships session, in part because it featured Cortney Piper (pictured here), Executive Director of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council. As the organization’s founding President, I have a soft spot in my heart for the group. Piper shared the experience of vetting the need and support for what became the Business Council and its more recent efforts running the Energy Mentor Network with support from Launch Tennessee.

Two corporate executives joined her on the panel, each with intriguing stories from the corporate innovation perspective.

  • One was Reed Hayes, Assistant Vice President for Digital Strategy and Innovation at Unum. He moved to the Chattanooga enterprise from The Walt Disney Company and previously worked for The Coca-Cola Company and Volkswagen of America Inc.
  • The other was Anthony Oni, a 20-year veteran of the Southern Company where, until recently, he served in various roles with its Alabama Power Company subsidiary. Oni is now Vice President of Corporate Communications for Southern Company Gas and also CEO of Cloverly, an Alabama Power company for carbon offsets.

Describing Disney as “one of the most innovative, if not the most innovative companies in America,” Hayes described how the company created a team between the R&D group, which pursued “moonshot-type” initiatives, and the product innovation managers who were charged with delivering on the selected ideas in six to 12 months.

“Our group would (sometimes) have to do a submarine approach to innovation,” Hayes said. By that, he meant they would identify a target, take it undercover for a period of time to develop it, and then bring the idea to the surface.

Oni described how Cloverly evolved from an idea to a company that is described as a “Sustainability as a Service” platform making carbon offsets available for everyday activities like ecommerce deliveries, ridesharing, and much more. Describing the evolution as a process that drew on innovation capital, he said, “Value alignment is really, really key.”

Daley Ervin, Managing Director at Engage Ventures in Atlanta, asked the panelists for their list of best practices from their various perspectives – Piper in terms of the advice the Mentor Network provides and Hayes and Oni in terms of the corporate view.

Piper emphasized that it starts with having solid business and financial models, includes the ability to concisely tell your story, and includes an ability to align with the needs of a corporation. “Just because a company can partner with you doesn’t mean they will,” she said. “And, follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.”

Hayes started with “air cover” at the C-Suite level for any successful innovation project. With that, the other important actions are removal of as much internal red tape as possible, having fast track legal paperwork, and having access to really good engineering talent.

In addition to reiterating the importance of innovation capital, Oni’s list included approaching projects with lean discipline – “it’s not for the faint of heart,” he said, adding the importance of a great team, an internal champion, and robust communication. “It’s a big deal,” he said of the latter point.

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