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Unilever’s former innovation boss launches bid to give brands a Foundry of their own

Jeremy Basset says he wants Co:Cubed to help companies to "turbocharge" innovation.

Jeremy Basset, the marketer who led the Unilever Foundry for start-ups, is launching a stand-alone business that promises to give brands all the services and advice needed to form their own network of entrepreneurs.

Dubbed Co:Cubed, the business is “100% independent of Unilever” according to its founder and is staffed by a team of innovation specialists from Tesco, Diageo and the British Military.

They are currently working with FTSE 100 companies on one off projects (i.e. helping to craft the strategy for what their 'Foundry' might look like), though most deals are ongoing. Some of those clients can tap the expertise from Co:Cubed’s pool of more than 500,000 start-ups, while others will benefit from a series of events designed to showcase emerging technology to life with the business. For other corporates, the innovation house will be used as consultants to help establish and manage their online portal for collaboration.

It amounts to a plug and play offer Co:Cubed will pitch to businesses (see below) for what Basset said is as much about “transforming corporate culture as it is about bringing scalable solutions”. While his pitch sounds similar to what might be heard at the likes of Founders Factory, Redscout and Albion Drive, the former Unilever marketer outlined three points: a focus on transforming corporate culture rather than just working on a project: everything Co:Cubed does is white labelled and so is “simply here to bring expertise, scale and partners to turbocharge what companies do themselves”: thirdly, it has a network of what it calls the world's best startups, because to “engage in this space well, one partner is simply not sufficient”.

The move comes as corporate venture capitalists become more commonplace amid tougher commercial pressures to innovate. Wal-Mart is the latest to launch its own corporate venture arm earlier this year, joining the likes of Diageo, Unilever and Mastercard in establishing an in-house team that can steer them through what is a complicated and nuanced market. Data from the National Venture Capital Association revealed that corporate VC deals topped 1,000 for the first team in at least a decade in 2013, and has stayed above this threshold in subsequent years, though it did dip slightly from 1,268 in 2015 to 1,069 in 2016.

Remuneration for those services comes from the businesses rather than the start-ups. Basset stressed that his business doesn’t “take kick-backs” from entrepreneurs and is not invested in any of their businesses. Therefore, Co:Cubed is “unbiased in the startups we're recommending”, he said before adding “we're here to help corporates engage in the startup ecosystem effectively, easily and with impact”.

“At Unilever we were very open about what we were doing and how to do it, we wanted to take the industry with us on this journey,” Basset continued.

“However, fast forward two years of those discussions and very few companies embarked on the journey themselves, and those that have are still facing challenges. Much of the capability required to run these programmes does not belong within a corporate: finding the right startups, organising events, building web platforms for collaboration... all of this is a massive distraction to the core job to be done, which is to engage senior leaders across the organisation to embed and scale new innovation across the organisation.”

By employing a third party to do this, brands arguably have a more cost-effective way of accessing more start-ups than they ever would do if were they to attempt something similar on their own.

Basset added: “By definition, innovation is the opposite of commoditisation. While there are lots of great programmes to help startups to engage with corporates, we believe that corporates are very underserved when it comes to helping them engage in the startup ecosystem in a way that is simple, scalable and impactful. The biggest opportunity we can create for startups is to take the entire FTSE 100 on this journey of collaborative innovation, and that's what we're here to do.”

Co:Cubed marks the next stage of Basset’s career following 13 years at Unilever, where he spearheaded its work with start-ups worldwide under the Foundry initiative. It meant marketers from across the Unilever business were able to post briefs online to source technologies to solve various business challenges. The offering has since been taken over by its head global marketing strategy officer Jonathan Hammond.

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