10 tips for building an award-winning collaboration

10 tips for building an award-winning collaboration

Entrepreneurship is not only for entrepreneurs. It’s also for the corporate, governmental, and institutional partners that work with entrepreneurs. Especially in today’s economy, partners are essential, and working across sectors can be particularly powerful.

Just ask Cambrian Innovation’s CEO Matthew Silver, Ph.D. Cambrian was named one of the GoingGreen Global 200, and Silver is the first to admit that strategic alliances are key components of their success so far -- and of their strategy going forward. “Collaborative projects are a key part of our approach, since they give us both broader reach and more flexibility,” Silver explained.

Cambrian Innovation develops bio-tech solutions that “help industrial, agricultural, and government customers save money while recovering clean water and clean energy from wastewater streams,” according to their press materials. I spoke with Dr. Silver and with James F. Groelinger, the Executive Director of the Clean Energy Alliance (CEA), the national association of clean energy incubators that helped Cambrian obtain the funding for one of its collaborations in 2012. 

To build a winning team, you need partners who bring complementary networks, resources, capabilities, and experience. That’s especially true when breaking new ground in an emerging industry like cleantech. The GoingGreen 200 are “the top companies that are disrupting global industries and creating viable business models for the green technology marketplace,” according to AlwaysOn, the media brand in the Silicon Valley that produces the GoingGreen 200 award program. Winners were selected from thousands of technology companies worldwide based on five criteria, according to AlwaysOn: innovation, market potential, commercialization, stakeholder value and media buzz.

Cambrian’s success has been supported by innovative collaborations, including the U.S. government, the private sector, and the State of Massachusetts where Cambrian is based (it was spun out of MIT in 2006). After Cambrian connected to the Department of Energy Small Business and Clean Energy Alliance Partnership (DOE-CEA), which is administered by CEA, Cambrian reached out to CEA member Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems. The DOE-CEA provided funding support through its Recovery Act-funded grant program, and helped Cambrian obtain advice from the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP). MassMEP is an affiliate of the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) administered through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). 

“CEA is always striving for collaborations that enhance the capabilities of its member incubators and their clients,” Groelinger said. “When I met the Manufacturing Extension Partnership folks, it was obvious how we could work together to help grow cleantech companies and we quickly formed a collaboration to support commercialization by companies like Cambrian.”

Here are some tips for what makes a winning partnership, with input from Cambrian and its partners:

  1. Pick the right partners: The new model of partnership is across sectors. Cambrian did this with partners from the federal, state, and private sectors. Choose a local mentor as well. Make sure there are viable, constructive synergies. “This collaboration is an example of the cooperative approach that can really help to get cleantech scaled,” Cambrian’s Silver told me. “It’s about partnering with the appropriate sources of expertise that can help you move forward while still maintaining high quality standards.”
  2. Clarity is power: Be clear about who does what when and the expectations. Whether you’ve known each other forever -- or just met over Twitter -- assume nothing. Be clear about boundaries, such as what’s proprietary and who owns what. And set clear goals. Silver stressed that it's key "for any collaboration to very clearly articulate a shared set of objectives. What exactly is each party bringing to, and getting out, of this collaboration and how?”
  3. Put it in writing: Have documents and agreements that clarify specifically who owns what. Agreeing over a few beers to share the benefits of your new patent with your drinking buddy is all well and good, but at least write it on a napkin and put that napkin in a safety deposit box. Have legally binding agreements in place. And develop plans. As Greg King, Innovation Program Manager of MassMEP, said, “Good leaders develop good plans and good plans are a recipe for success. [Companies that have] good written plans generally, statistically, are 80 percent more successful than those companies that don’t.“
  4. There’s no harm in asking: There’s an authenticity in asking for help, guidance, or clarification. No one knows everything, and there’s a kind of bonding that occurs when we drop our guard enough to say “I don’t know, can you help me find out?” Better to ask than screw up unnecessarily, wasting resources, including time. MassMEP’s Greg King emphasized this: “Good communication across stakeholders, employees is critical, leaving your ego at the door. Confidence is great, but you have to be aware when it’s time to ask for help – it’s really key.”
  5. Focus on your core competency: Having multiple routes to success – a few products or revenue streams – is good so long as you don’t lose focus. Each partner may have their own agenda, so use their expertise to help define and focus on the agenda of the business. Silver added, “Having several products increases your chances of success, but if you spread yourself too thin, you can’t do any of them well. However, if you can work out collaborative mechanisms, you can leverage the terrific work of multiple talented partners and decrease the risk and increase the chances of success.”
  6. Lead and follow the market: A successful innovation either shows the market something it didn’t know it needed, or responds to a market need that wasn’t being filled. Either way, you need to understand how the market is currently filling this need and where you fit. “The company needs to be close to the market, be relevant to the market, to be successful in commercialization,” said Mass MEP’s King. He added, “What’s the value proposition that’s being offered to the market, and how is it best delivered? Those are the central questions for start-ups. They need to work on the business merits as well as the technical merits, in order to be at the forefront of what the market needs.”
  7. Share intelligence: Each partner has intelligence about the industry and/or sector that’s valuable. It might take some digging to discover it, such as a nuance about the target market’s purchasing habits or priorities. Sharing openly reinforces the “team” and advances the entity in which you all have a shared interest. Just be clear about what’s proprietary.
  8. Create value: Before you can attract financial support, you have to make sure what you’re doing creates value in the marketplace. Whether you’re an entrepreneur seeking funds to build a prototype, or in a big company exploring a new idea in their R&D department, you still need to demonstrate to the powers that be that “it” has viable potential market value.
  9. Find your inner financier: Some people are better at numbers than others, but every business person should be comfortable with their relevant financials. There’s power in the numbers and if you don’t know the numbers, you’ll lack some of the power.
  10. Branding matters: Promote it consistent with the value it creates, the market it serves and the values of the company. Be careful how you present it, write about it and talk about it. Language matters, image matters. Technology can be complex, so simplify it. If “they” don’t understand it, “they” won’t buy it, support it, or promote it. Find analogies in everyday life, for example. Silver added that all partners should buy in to the messaging too.

Silver also provided some advice for other start-ups: “(A)spiring entrepreneurs need to think clearly about the technical risk versus business risk, and they should adapt go-to-market plans as a function of both. Software start-ups, IT hardware, Pharma, and Clean Energy, all have different (a) technical challenges (b) customer types and (c) time to market. Particularly for higher capital start-ups, plan early on for a winding road to the market, and find partners that can eliminate unnecessary technical overhead.”

Image by VLADGRIN via Shutterstock