Corporate incubators have been all the rage. Around 10 years ago, a number of corporates started to set up some kind of corporate incubator or accelerator to nurture new business lines and innovative products. They had a limited vision of ‘incubator’ – generally designed to host new startups within their facilities. They offered them resources, support and, as they matured, market access.
10 years later many of these corporates have scaled down their efforts or largely abandoned them. Corporate incubator 1.0 did not realise its somewhat loose ambition. A number of the more innovative corporates and a few management consultants are working on the next generation of corporate incubator.
Letts Group has taken a different approach. Our incubator is an internal function that is central to the organisation. It is our growth engine – period.
“We see our incubator as a strategic, internal, centralised function. We have repositioned the group as a ‘branded incubator group’ to underscore this. We don’t just make small bets on our incubator or outsource it’s core capability. We’ve bet the entire shop on our incubator. It is our core capability.”
The concept of incubator has been with us for 225 years. In 1996, our original founder, John Letts opened a stationery shop and publishing incubator in the city of London. The front rooms the shop and the back rooms the incubator studio. From this setup he launched the world’s first commercial diary in 1812. It was market tested exclusively in the store and designed and made in the back rooms.
Letts Group’s Chairman, Philip Letts, started to develop the latest generation incubator in 1998. It was a separate entity, called Prophete, that nurtured external, non-branded innovations. It developed concepts such as Beenz, the Web currency, and Surfkitchen, a mobile operating system and media platform. It was an important parallel initiative as we started the process of divesting some of our book publishing interests.
In 2007 we further developed Letts Group’s latest generation incubator, after initial successes. We built a proprietary incubation methodology, which is called Innov@te™, and we designed our first incubator studio with a clutch of then, very new, cloud systems and processes. From this base we launched b-uncut, a social network for artists and blur Group, an online marketplace for creative services. Both were successfully spun out and became independent businesses.
It took much of the last 10 years to perfect the methodology, systems and processes to get to the point where we felt comfortable that our incubator was ready to develop multiple Letts branded businesses and products from scratch – and in parallel.
At the end of 2020 we gave the go ahead for 3 new Letts branded ventures to go to ‘live concept phase’. The tech industry would call it ‘beta launch’. The first hits the market in June. We have engineered the group, and developed the incubator, to the point where we feel comfortable that we will be launching a new Letts venture per year, starting this year.
It’s taken us 20 years to get to this point but we believe that we might have a line on corporate incubator 2.0. The proof will be in the pudding – starting next month!