NEWSee if you qualify for Startgrid's FREE 30-day trial

Innovation Wisdom from Jelena Joffe Weil at AWS

Successfully work with the startup ecosystem to improve innovation

calendar icon June 1, 2021

I recently had the pleasure of a fireside chat with Jelena Joffe Weil. Jelena is Amazon Web Services’ worldwide startup lead for the Rapid Open Innovation and AWS Connections programs. In her role, she helps global organizations collaborate with cutting edge startups and build internal capabilities to innovate at scale, drawing on the innovation best practices developed by Amazon. Our discussion covered how to successfully work with the startup ecosystem, building partner networks and overcoming internal barriers to innovation.

Here are some excerpts from Jelena’s comments. The content has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full discussion here.

The Innovation Journey

We’re trying to show customers that innovation is not just a set of tools or best practices in a random time and space, it’s a journey that constantly evolves, and there might be some parts of the organization that are more advanced than others.

I like to think of it in terms of maturity stages. If we talk specifically about working with startups, there are certain programs or techniques that are more applicable when you’re more mature as an organization versus when you’re just starting out.

If you’re just starting to work with startups and you’re trying to fix the basics, work with enterprise-ready startups. They can help you get some tangible outcomes quicker. And then you can earn the trust of your organization, get more funding, build the muscle, and then push the boundaries and experiment with new business models.

Benefits of Working with Startups

We found that piloting with startups is at least five to ten times less expensive than building from scratch or working with consulting partners. In terms of the timeline, we found that it’s at least four times faster. And then, of course, there’s a difference in the success rate.

For example, we had a project helping a global brand develop a digital screening tool for a previously undiagnosed disease. The team had done a lot of work already to build it in-house. We came in and showcased a couple of partners who are best in breed in vocal biomarkers. There is no way that consultants can create anything remotely matching that capability in a matter of months. So why not use technology that’s already there?

Software’s Role in Managing Innovation

We can’t underestimate the importance of software, technology and automation – with a healthy combination of human inputs. From the enterprise side, when I was at AB InBev, what I was missing was having a platform where I could manage my innovation process and partnerships. Technology would have allowed us to avoid duplication of work, share learnings and knowledge, and accelerate our pace of innovation.

And sometimes you just need a quick startup search and a good way to discover the right partners and manage them all in one place.

I was also missing the qualitative component – what we do with AWS Connections. I wanted to know from a VC stand-point if this company is raising the next round, if the leadership team is strong enough, if the science behind the product is solid, and so on. And ideally, I’d love to get that input in one place and then get my team from the business engaged to share their feedback.

Collaboration, Process and Alignment

Oftentimes we confuse innovation with something that is new, shiny, and exciting, and assume that we just need to let people run with it and innovation will happen naturally and deliver amazing results. But just like writing a book, a lot of daily work and discipline is actually what makes or breaks innovation efforts.

I see leadership goal alignment, early stakeholder engagement, and internal processes as being some of the top challenges. You want to put aside, for a second, your amazing ecosystem relationships and your best in breed startups and get your house in order. You want to build a very clear governance with a clear methodology for managing innovation. Ask whether the goals of your leaders are aligned with your effort. Do functional and innovation pipelines interlock? How quickly are the stakeholders involved in decision-making? Was the customer need the focus from the beginning?

In terms of the mechanisms, this includes fast-tracking procurement, legal, finance, IP and security. Is it going to take you six months to onboard? Or three weeks? How many pilots can you run per year? With all of these things, you also need to think about how that will impact your reputation in the ecosystem so partners want to work with you. Many of these foundational elements we address with the Rapid Open Innovation methodology.

Amplifying The Voices of Diverse Entrepreneurs

At AWS we’re constantly working on developing mechanisms that amplify the voices of underrepresented founders. For example, our team no longer attends panels unless they’re diverse and tries to make sure the events that we run are too. We want to hear from voices that are not normally heard. Whenever you start looking for and amplifying these voices, you always find them.

In terms of our Connections program, we’re working on trying to discover and bring forward those founders who might not be funded by the top tier VCs but have great companies. So how can we help discover and support them with access to capital, go to market, mentorship, and so on? We have lots of different programs and strategies that members of our team are driving. We’re just a small piece, but we all can contribute in our little ways.