I joined Stora Enso in the beginning of 2017. At that time we were already discussing how to get access to the most innovative and brilliant minds across the globe to accelerate our transformation journey into the renewable materials company. Two different initiatives, with different purposes, were developed in parallel, the Stora Enso Accelerator Program and the Combient Foundry Venture Client Program.
The Accelerator program is a leadership program where Stora Enso employees work alongside start-ups over a few months on specific themes – e.g. on how to create a plastic free supply chain or how to leverage digitalisation. Not only do our employees and the start-ups learn from each other, but the program has also resulted in several continued partnerships.
The other program, Combient Foundry, is a joint initiative between several large Nordic companies aiming to find start-ups as business partners in a systematic way. Before we launched this program, we did a lot of research on how other companies had organised start-up programmes and our conclusion was that a venture client model would be most suitable for us. However, this model requires a lot of courage and willingness to change our ways of working! Let me tell you why.
The venture client model builds on open innovation, which requires the corporates to be quite open about their business challenges and opportunities publicly to the world. The more concrete you are with the cases, the better responses and ideas you get. The start-ups bringing the most suitable solutions to the table are then contracted to co-create and partner with us. This means that the start-up company may very well walk out from the program with one of their first big corporate clients. The setup of Combient Foundry is quite unique as it involves several large corporates, which also means that the start-ups get exposed to many potential large clients at the same time.
Over the last three years we have screened over 1100 start-up companies and established deeper collaboration with 22 of them. A couple of examples include 20tree.ai with whom we have developed a satellite imagery analysis solution to monitor the health conditions of forests, and Sulapac with whom we have developed a fully biodegradable straw which is commercially available. Another interesting example is Trä Group, who together with Stora Enso formed an initiative called HEAL in 2018. HEAL has developed a platform with digital services offered to the building industry to make it more efficient and sustainable. Since HEAL was established, they have themselves been looking for additional start-ups in the Combient Foundry program.
Now, a couple of years into our start-up engagements, I can conclude that it has been tremendously rewarding and at the same time challenging journey. For example, we found out that to succeed together with start-ups we had to make significant adjustments in how we work. Start-ups live by the day, so to become faster and more agile we have organised the start-up projects into shorter sprints. Moreover, we have created a set of internal instructions to outline how we engage with start-ups when comes to sourcing and legal matters, as well as a process with clear roles and responsibilities for how to facilitate the start-up programs internally.
I mentioned earlier that the journey has also been rewarding. One highlight is the overwhelming feedback we have received from both start-ups and our own business. For example, the Combient Foundry program before Christmas 2019 received a rating of 9,4 out of 10 from the start-up participants, and at the same time the start-ups testified that their sales cycle had been shortened with an average of 91 days. Moreover, the time from first meeting to value is very short. A showcase of this this quick value generation is the collaboration with the start-up company Snap Support and a couple of Stora Enso paper printing customers. In that case we were able to convert an early idea about how to improve remote technical customer support into a working solution for our customers just 6 months later.
So, what is next in our start-up journey? One step is that we want to involve our customers even more in the co-innovation process. We have already started this bit when we invited our customers Fazer and Tetra Pak to the Combient Foundry programme. The case with Tetra Pak was even part of our first ever ‘all-Chinese’ cycle where we tapped into the Chinese start-up eco system. Moreover, we will continue on the successful path that we have already set out on – both widening and deepening collaboration with the other corporates in the Combient network as well as with the start-ups. Our aim is to really enable innovation to self-ignite throughout Stora Enso and the extended eco-system to deliver on our promise that everything made from fossil-based materials today could be made from a tree tomorrow.
Antti Vuolli, Head of New Digital Business & Startups at Stora Enso, focuses on accelerating the development of new business models, corporate startups, and running Stora Enso’s startup engagement. Antti and Stora Enso are founding members of the Combient Foundry venture client program together with Combient and Kone.