New Jersey Corporate Innovation Centers Want to Connect with Startups, Panelists at ACG New Jersey Say, Part Two

In April, the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) New Jersey held an event that featured a panel of corporate incubator execs who discussed their programs and how they work with startups.

The event, titled “The Future is Now: Corporate Innovation Centers Connecting with Early Stage Investors,” was hosted by Mark S. Kuehn and Frank T. Cannone, both from the Newark office of the Gibbons P.C. law firm. Mario Casabona, investor and founder of Kinnelon-based TechLaunch and Casabona Ventures, had assembled the panel, and he served as the moderator.

Participating in the panel were John C. Anthes, director of Celgene Corporation (Summit); Albert Baker, corporate director, life sciences and innovation, Hackensack Meridian Health (Edison); Susan M. Miller, program manager, mobile networks, at Nokia Bell Labs (Murray Hill); and Michael Robortaccio, director, corporate development, Avis Budget Group (Parsippany).

In this second part of a two-part story, we cover the presentations by Nokia Bell Labs and Avis Budget Group. The presentations by Celgene Corporation and Hackensack Meridian Health were discussed in part one, here.

Photo: Susan Miller heads "5G Innovation City" at Nokia Bell Labs. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Susan Miller heads "5G Innovation City" at Nokia Bell Labs. | Esther Surden

Nokia Bell Labs

Miller couldn’t have stressed more how she wants to welcome startups and communications technology innovators into her lab, in Murray Hill.

“I have a lab called ‘5G Innovation City,’” she said, noting that it operates under Nokia’s tagline, “We create the technology to connect the world,” and that it has lately been focusing on intelligent software, artificial intelligence and the internet of things (IoT). 5G Innovation City is interested in startups in the high-speed broadband, internet-interconnectivity and cloud-services spaces. “We work closely with Bell Labs research teams, trying to bring their innovations into the lab.” And the group works across business lines to bring in optical and the other technologies “we need to develop our network,” she said.

“As far as engaging the startup ecosystem, what we are looking for are end-user applications that could run and take advantage of the 5G network,” Miller noted. “Anything that has a wow factor is a huge plus. We have both indoor and outdoor facilities available.” Once you have developed these applications, she told the audience, the incubator will feed back into the product line some of the lessons learned.

“What we are trying to do is make 5G a commercial reality. So, we are looking for the killer app. For LTE, it was the smartphone.” And for the next generation, 5G, which enables real-time responses for applications and more bandwidth, the lab wants to work with startups, she said.

Nokia will work with the startup and integrate its application onto a 5G network that will be operational in the lab, but “no money changes hands.” Bell Labs can “work with you to help envision how much better” 5G will make your current devices work, and to define the capabilities of the application. “Then we will demo your application with your name on it to all the customers who come into our lab.”

Photo: Michael Robortaccio is director of corporate development at Avis Budget Group. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Michael Robortaccio is director of corporate development at Avis Budget Group. | Esther Surden

Avis Budget Group

The Avis Budget Group uses a different type of model, as is fitting for this “elderly” brand. As Robortaccio said, “You are probably wondering why a guy from a 70-year-old car rental company is here talking about innovation. Our industry is not that well known for innovation. They are known for making you wait for two hours after you get off a plane.

“While we try to do a better job than our competitors, the industry is changing … [and] our primary concern is what to do about the disruptions that are happening.” Uber is a constant issue in his business. Cars today are connected, they are electrified and “pretty soon they won’t even need us to drive them around. With the vehicle becoming a personal device, the way we interface with mobility is changing every day.”

Part of the problem for Avis Budget Group is that it is a 70-year-old car rental company. “We can’t just open up an accelerator in Parsippany and say, ‘Hey, Avis Budget Group has an accelerator!’ It would be me and my boss in a room, looking at each other.” People do know Avis Budget Group as the company that owns the Zipcar brand, “so if we do have organic opportunities come to us, it’s because of Zipcar.”

So, what does any good innovator do? Avis Budget Group outsourced its innovation needs by collaborating with RocketSpace (San Francisco, Calif.), which Robortaccio called a “technology campus for startups.” RocketSpace creates a funnel of startups for Avis Budget Group, and puts them together with companies like BP, Allstate, IBM, Magna and Volkswagen. Together, they work with startups on real-life product testing and go-to-market solutions.

“We are collaborating with them to leverage off of each other’s names and skills to create a big funnel of opportunities,” Robortaccio explained. “It’s a three-year program where essentially every six months you get a new batch of startup companies, which we all evaluate together. And we say who we want to work with, who we think is interesting to us.

“We are seeing technologies from mobile payments to electric cable charging to IoT platforms, all kinds of things that would never come to us organically.”

When the company does want to test out a startup’s technology, it does so at its “connected city” pilot center, in Kansas City. Robortaccio said that the cars there are all connected to each other and to a payments system as well as a system that measures tire pressure. Systems access and measure “every kind of data you’d want to get from a car.”

One interesting aspect is that Avis Budget Group can hire out its vehicles in Kansas City for ride shares or Avis rentals, as needed, on the fly. “We can pilot this in a live customer environment and see if it works. If it fails, at least it fails fast and publicly, and we can say we’ll do it a different way.

“This lets us see how it will work in a real environment, with real customers who are in a hurry.” And if it works, “maybe we can scale it globally.” After all, “With nearly a million vehicles worldwide, we can’t just put something out there and hope it works. We have to test it.”

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