How enterprise tech startups and corporates can collaborate for innovation

Paul Santos, Managing Partner, Wavemaker Partners

Paul Santos, Managing Partner, Wavemaker Partners

At Wavemaker Partners, we’ve invested in 136 startups since 2012. Of these, 116 (85%) are in B2B and deep tech. Because of this, we’ve seen different ways our startups engage with corporates. Broadly, they do this through M&A, Investment, Partnerships and Customer Relationships.


Based on a list compiled by Tech in Asia, we have 4 out of the top 10 M&A exits in SEA (and number 11 too). In 2020 alone, mobile POS provider Moka (#5) was acquired by Gojek and order and inventory management SaaS company TradeGecko (#7) was acquired by Intuit. Key drivers of interest were customer access, product offering, and talent. For perspective, in the years preceding their exit, Moka was growing 100% year-on-year. Post-transaction, Moka is still going strong and has over 40,000 units deployed across Indonesia, powering MSMEs and growing the Gojek ecosystem. TradeGecko on the other hand, won over 1,000 customers across over 100 countries with more than $5 billion worth of transactions per year on their platform. TradeGecko has now been rebranded as QuickBooks Commerce.


43 of our companies have obtained investments from corporates/corporate VCs. Recent examples include Airbus Ventures, the venture capital arm of Airbus, investing in wireless laser communication startup Transcelestial. Transcelestial is Airbus Ventures’ first and marquee investment in Singapore. The investment gives Airbus Ventures a stake in a start-up that could eventually help solve global internet connectivity from space.

Standard Chartered’s venture arm SC Ventures invested in Silent Eight, and they are also Silent Eight's first major client. Silent Eight resolves anti-money laundering (AML) alerts using AI thereby improving decision accuracy while reducing resolution time and cost. Silent Eight's solutions are currently deployed in over 70 countries with more clients on the way.


Some of our companies have struck distribution partnerships like AIM Biotech with MilliporeSigma (the life science division of Merck) to make immunotherapy kits, which will help researchers and pharma companies develop new cancer therapies. AIM Biotech chips have been used in over 150 research labs in 20 countries worldwide, and 10 pharmbio companies.

Another successful example of a startup who have struck up successful partnerships is Zyllem. Zyllem helps enterprises manage and operate their entire distribution network (internal and external resources) in one platform.

It has partnered with Infor, one of the largest enterprise software companies in the world to digitize and optimize logistics value chains across the region. Zyllem has been integrated with Infor’s Warehouse Management System (WMS) and they are now going to market together.

Customer Relationships

This is of course the most common one since by definition B2B startups target corporates as customers. The best ones are where the impact is clear and measurable, especially during this pandemic.

With COVID-19 lockdowns, businesses have shuttered and retail sales plunged in 2020. Consumers shifted away from shopping in brick-and-mortar stores to online shopping and home delivery.

In the retail sector, we saw how’s conversational commerce helped a global MNC like L’Oreal. L-Oreal ran a 12-hour virtual beauty festival that reached 2.6M viewers and enabled over 20,000 one-on-one chats for eight of their brands without huge armies of salespeople. The initiative saw L’Oreal achieve one month’s worth of online sales in a single day, according to Forbes. The platform is also used by Disney, Unilever, Jollibee, Samsung, BMW, and Reckitt Benckiser.

On the F&B front, we saw online ordering system Oddle create value for its customers. Oddle provides solutions to help restaurants maximise their off-premise revenues which are not generated within the physical restaurant from deliveries and pickups. Oddle can power restaurants’ ecommerce sites, manage their digital marketing, and handle payments and deliveries while taking less commission than food delivery platforms would. Most importantly, they allow restaurants to keep valuable customer data.

We thought this would be a no-brainer for restaurants, but it wasn’t. On-premise revenues still accounted for most of their businesses (and their headaches) so many didn’t pay attention to off-premise revenue as much until COVID-19 hit. Lockdowns meant that all of sudden, restaurants had no more on-premise revenues. In the middle of lockdown, demand for Oddle spiked. Its monthly GMV has grown more than 10x since January and the company has remained profitable until today.

To better understand the factors that increase the odds of success, let’s focus on what we believe is one of the biggest risks startups face when trying to work with corporates: “Innovation PR”.

For us, “Innovation PR” is when someone from a corporate decides that they need to show the world that they are being innovative. They could sponsor a tech event or a hackathon or even an accelerator. How many of these initiatives turn into anything meaningful for the corporates and the startups?

Unfortunately, “Innovation PR” rarely turns out well for startups. It wastes their time and they have very little of it. A typical startup would have raised capital to give them 12-18 months of runway. They need to generate meaningful progress within these months in order to raise their next round of financing. If they don’t achieve this, they close shop.

Time wasted on corporates simply doing “Innovation PR” takes away time from things that will create value. It’s not that the corporates are trying to waste anyone’s time, but it’s that what’s at stake for them is much less. Even if nothing happens, their business continues and their jobs are safe. It also doesn’t help when over optimistic founders can’t tell either.

So what do serious corporates look like? The typically exhibit the following:

• They have a clearly defined problem they want to solve with a committed stakeholder

• They have a clearly defined budget to execute

• They have a differentiated buying process since many startups can’t survive typical purchasing processes

• They have clearly defined KPIs that can lead to the expansion of the pilot/program
In summary, when the foundations for engagement are properly set, startups and corporates can benefit from working together. Startups gain investors, partners or customers to help them scale. Corporates bring in innovation to make them more competitive.

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