di , 16/11/2017

Leverkusen-headquartered Bayer AG is one of the largest pharma groups globally. We talked with Eugene Borukhovich, Global Head of Digital Health Incubation & Innovation at the 1863-founded company.
In the startup scene, Bayer’s Grants4Apps accelerator programme is relatively well-known, but how is the company, which created aspirin in the 19th century and now has annual revenues of some 50 billion euros, learning from working with startups?

How possible is it to get the startup mindset into massive corporations?

It’s not for everyone. However, there are individuals and companies that are challenging the status quo.
The way I look at it, by definition a corporation is executing on an existing business model; in comparison, a startup is discovering a new business model. If you think about those dynamics it seems impossible.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook: “Quick, make a decision. Do things better, or do better things.” In my opinion, a corporation needs the ability to laser-focus on doing things better. I would almost say that being in a smaller team is equivalent to a startup, in that the team needs to grow and do better things.
You don’t necessarily want the whole corporation to suddenly focus on doing better things, because the business needs to execute on the existing business model, but the smaller team can do this.

What is the role of your innovation team?

We become the bridge between the innovators and the larger Bayer.
Even when doing things better, I think you still need the innovation spirit. I would almost see it as needing to “hack the core system” – and I do not mean in the negative hacking ways. There is a lot of low hanging fruit; you need teams and people who will be “celebrated” for doing what is unfairly called ‘incremental innovation’. So we look at co-developing opportunities, combining with some startups that help companies to do things better.
Under GrantsforApps we connect at four different levels, both external and internal. Firstly, we have our own meetups in almost 30 cities. This is how we get to know each other and identify some of the innovators who are willing to do something focused on hacking the core.
The second is co-working spaces – we now have these in at least six countries. It gives us another way of connecting and understanding: how do startups try to develop new business models and how do we help them bring these to Bayer and access the wider market?
The third way is through a typical accelerator, which we are also expanding into a fourth way, called Dealmaker. This is where we try to manage expectations, because we realised that Bayer, as a large entity, is very hard for young startups to work with.
To me it’s not about David vs Goliath. That story says one wins, one loses. Instead, I think it is a match made in heaven, because each party brings a certain unique aspect with it.

I really loved the metaphor of hacking the core system, but to get to that you need the core people on your side, right? How do you find them?

Normally a larger organisation prescribes what needs to be done from its ivory tower: here is the governance model, here is what you need to do, here is what to implement. What Jesus has done with the team is not just build a brand but also a family. Nobody asks the teams in the various countries or cities to do any of this – it is not a prescription. These are passionate people who see this, not necessarily internally or on our internal internet, but externally too, and are attracted to the idea of stepping up, spending more time in their day that they do not have and saying, “yes, I’m going to run a meetup. Yes, we are going to launch a co-working space.” Then they go out and sell the idea to their local P&L owner and other businesses.

During the last 3-4 years, how much have you been able to take that “sexy” startup culture back into the big old corporation?

I think the news from the teams that are being created and approaching the global team is probably the best thing that is happening. They dedicate time, outside of their actual job, to organise things. For example, nobody asked the Thailand team to organise Grants4Apps. To me, that speaks volumes.
The second part is that there are always people from other departments, whether it is sales, marketing etc., popping in to learn or share their experiences with the startups, even in Berlin. It has taken on a life of its own. Has it surpassed 100,000 people? Absolutely not, but we are seeing the momentum.

Taking it to 100,000 people – is that a target or a hope? Isn’t it a bit too much?
We need to be realistic. Keeping the process is important. I think the process-oriented culture that brought us here, to being a very innovative R&D company, provides value and output in the end.
There is a balance and it is a long way to 100,000. My comment is that we are all innovators. What matters is what entrepreneurs do really well: their high focus and actually getting it done.

Tips for startups
1 Really know your customer.
I get so many messages through LinkedIn and Twitter to say, “hey we have this diabetes solution.” If you did your homework you would know that Bayer had sold its diabetes division. To me that is a disconnect. You did not take time to really understand our business. As a startup, know your customer.
2 Data is evidence.
Digital health is no longer hype – there is evidence of it coming out. The practice of medicine is still evidence-based though and I think that will continue. Approach strongly with at least a hypothesis for your evidence. Don’t come to us and just say: here is the technology. What is the hypothesis for the evidence you need to generate to prove that this could be a viable solution for the customer?
3 Nobody has time to waste, be direct.
I do this both in Bayer and outside: if I am not interested I will tell you, or I will tell you what I need in order to be interested in it. I know it can sound a little harsh, but I’ve spent time on the other side as a startup cofounder too so you probably understand how many time-wasting conversations I’ve had. You either have potential interest or you don’t. It’s one or the other. It’s pretty binary.