The year 2020 brought us a pandemic, deepened political divides and highlighted long-existing inequalities. Yet the promise of an effective vaccine, developed at hitherto unimaginable speed, shows us the power of solving large problems with approaches that are collaborative, not competitive.
This philosophy of “Stronger Together,” regularly perceived as naive in the hyper-competitive innovation hubs of Silicon Valley and Boston, is integral to the societal and corporate fabric of America’s heartland as evidenced by the Seamless Consortium of Grand Rapids. Over the last five years the organization has fostered an innovation ecosystem that brings together multinationals and startups to leverage each other’s strengths, while contributing to prosperity and a culture of inclusion in the region.
Our long-term study of the Seamless Consortium has shown the ability of companies to collaborate with great effectiveness — current members include Whirlpool, Gentex, Bissell, Amway, Haworth and Trinity Health, one of America’s largest health care providers. Over the last five years they have fostered an innovation ecosystem that brings together multinationals and startups to leverage each other’s strengths, while contributing to prosperity and a culture of inclusion in the region. How can such industrial clusters of excellence foster the innovation necessary to retain (or regain) their competitiveness?
Seamless was founded in 2015 as an offshoot of Start Garden, a Grand Rapids incubator, by locally based multinational enterprises that realized that as a consortium they could provide a stronger value proposition to engage with startups developing cutting-edge technologies. Initially, they focused on technologies that could help their businesses find entrées into the world of IoT; today, they scout worldwide driven by broad, forward-looking themes, such as “well-being,” that span verticals.
Why is this important? As COVID-19 further shows us, where staying safe requires vigilance at home, at work and in between, the life of a consumer is a continuum. Seamless’ members recognize that some of the best opportunities for innovation lie in connecting industries. Startups are adept at finding the gaps, while industry knows how to scale. Herein lies the potential for a fruitful collaboration. While eager to engage with startups, many enterprises lack the methods to do so efficiently and effectively.
There are significant operational barriers that hinder collaboration between an enterprise, whose revenues are measured in billions, and a startup, working fast toward its next funding round. The most notable include identifying the right opportunities, finding points of contact in the bigger company, defining an engagement and legal wrangling.
Seamless has evolved into a “middleware” that addresses these barriers, providing a single point of contact that scouts worldwide for promising startups, organizes real hands-on experiments together with enterprise members, streamlines funding and ensures that the results are shared within the group. Traditional scouting looks for plug-and-play solutions to grow existing businesses, while this model empowers its members to test drive startups that blur the lines between industries, services and products, the physical and digital, and the public and private sectors, in fields as broad as autonomous transportation, mental health and logistic.
The startups also gain value by avoiding formulaic demonstrations and, instead, capturing the data and insights that come from applying their technologies to test cases that touch multiple industry verticals. Collaborating spreads risk, enables much richer engagements and provides unique learning opportunities for enterprises and startups alike. Time from first contact to an experiment can be as short as three months and we know of no other model that enables enterprises to move at startup speed.
Can other regions of America use this model to harness their industrial legacy, step out of their comfort zones and foster economic growth in their region in the post-pandemic world? The Grand Rapids experience would suggest that such a recipe has five ingredients: (a) a carefully curated non-compete industry group that can work together and share confidential information (b) local private and public investment capital (c) manageable geographical proximity for enterprises and startups to work together (d) a culture of design and innovation and (e) a community of trusted professionals. Arguably, this ingredient is the most important, hardest to replicate and the true precursor ingredient of Seamless.
Smaller cities, often in need of renewal, are some of the best at forming close networks that leverage their underlying fabric of trust. We believe that this model from the Heartland of America can lead the way to faster, better solutions in the post-COVID world.
Chintan Vaishnav is a socio-technologist. He teaches at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and builds solutions for resource-poor communities. Nevan Hanumara focuses on human-centered design. He co-teaches teaches medical device design in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.