One of the most thrown-around buzzwords in the innovation space has to be “corporate-startup collaboration”.
And while it seems to be the ultimate end goal – corporates harnessing innovation from startups and startups accessing big customers and expertise – it seems so elusive in real life. One exception has to be Orange.
The Orange Group is a multinational telecoms group with a presence in 26 countries and over 282 million customers. Landing such a well-situated partner/client would be any startup's dream. The good news is – Orange is also pretty into startups.
We spoke to Michaël Peeters, Innovation Director at Orange Belgium, and Mathieu de La Rochefoucauld, Managing Partner at Orange Ventures, on their unique approach to supporting startups.
Two branches, one goal – grow startups to grow Orange
Being such a huge organization, Orange has several approaches to supporting startups, all united with the main goal of ultimately benefiting the global brand. That comes in the form of the Orange Fab accelerator – present in 18 cities and countries around the world.
In it, promising tech startups work with Orange Teams with the purpose of implementing a business partnership. And that also comes in the form of Orange Ventures – the group's VC fund overseeing 350 million EUR in investment that invests in a range of ideas across multiple geographies and verticals.
“Our ambitions are not overlapping, but complementary – we reinforce each other. We look for innovations to accelerate ourselves, while Mathieu looks for how we can select the right startups, help them grow, and grow ourselves.” - Michaël Peeters, Innovation Director at Orange Belgium
Orange Fab's goal is to end up with a commercial deal with startups. They put out a call for innovation, and after a selection process, accept around 3 startups per year into their accelerator. Over the course of 6-9 months, they will work with the teams to implement a win-win partnership.
An example of this collaboration? The start-up product can join Orange's product portfolio, and then be sold to B2B or B2C customers.
One such example is CommuniThings – a smart parking provider that was one of the first startups to join the Orange portfolio. Now present in 30 cities and shopping centers in Belgium and more abroad, the startup is sold as an Orange product. CommuniThings is gearing up to develop their product to serve the emerging EV market, to help drivers find and reserve parking spaces with charging docks.
Meanwhile, Orange Ventures provides investment to European series-B software startups, Middle East and Africa-based series A/B startups, and seed-stage impact startups. Currently, with 43 investments under their belt, the Venture fund has a small team with a presence in Europe and Africa, through their Paris and Egypt offices.
While Orange Ventures isn't exclusively interested in startups that can be sold under Orange, they provide a certain benefit for their portfolio startups, as they can provide introductions as well as access to their extensive markets and ecosystem.For instance, the Orange Ventures operating team is accompanying Batch, which develops a nextgen customer engagement platform, to highlight the benefits of its solution to tech and operational teams.
The first deployments of the solution in the Orange group, in the MEA area, indicates that, while still at the beginning of the journey, the collaboration is well underway.
Both branches are in regular communication, and collaborate to provide insight to each other:
“We act as a touchstone of the local markets, to verify if investment is worthwhile. We can test things in Orange countries to provide confirmation to Orange Ventures that acceleration will work and that there is growth in the company. That is, in my opinion, big leverage that can be used. The next step then is to invest into the company and scale,” Peeters explains.
Partners in navigation
A unique aspect to Orange's offering is that their programmes offer support in navigating the behemoth that is Orange Group. In fact Orange Ventures, already a small team, has two dedicated operating partners whose main role is to guide relationships within the Orange ecosystem.
“It's difficult for startups to work with big groups like Orange, and vice versa. The Orange Ventures operating partners help them work together. It's a huge strength for portfolio companies.” - Mathieu de La Rochefoucauld, Managing Partner at Orange Ventures
This effectively solves one of the biggest obstacles in startup-corporate collaboration – by bridging the gap between the two culturally different sides, they effectively act as a guide, and a translator. It's no surprise that with this sort of support, Orange has been able to grow multiple startups into collaborators.
Orange Ventures emphasizes that their investments don't always have to be synergized with Orange's products, but that it's a huge opportunity. And accelerator startups can be business-adjacent. To illustrate – one of the accelerated startups, EmailTree, an AI-based customer support email software, isn't inherently a telecoms product. But it has been adopted for internal use.
Part of the startup ecosystem
The aforementioned EmailTree is a startup from Luxembourg. They will be pitching at this year's The Big Score event in Belgium – an event where Orange, is this year again, a partner.
Together, the two Orange Group branches are developing their own cycle of startup development. Startups get a leg up at the accelerator, participate in pitching events like The Big Score, then move on to larger investment rounds, possibly also by Orange Ventures.The team at Orange hope to keep this going.
By highlighting the presence of Orange Ventures in Belgium, they hope that in the next few years we'll see the first Orange Ventures investment flowing into an Orange Fab Belgium’s startup.
You can meet Orange Ventures and Orange Fab at The Big Score in Ghent, Belgium, from November 15-17.