Too often, we associate innovation and industry disruption with startups – entrepreneurs with bootstrapped funds and big ideas. Startup culture is trendy, it’s sexy and for many up and coming engineers, designers, and business people, the idea of working in a “corporate” environment is not at all inspiring.

But the truth is, many of the most innovative, impactful ideas that have inspired startup founders to create innovative businesses were actually born out of large, corporate environments. The way we see it, industry has two choices: build a culture that fosters, encourages, and supports innovation and reap the benefits on their culture, talent retention, and profit margins or, resist change, fight against the expectations of their customers, and fall behind.

While the bureaucracy and risk aversion of traditional industry can stifle new ideas, it is possible for large corporations to build a culture that fosters innovation and for startups to maintain the “startup mentality” as they grow.

We asked Jana Levene, Business Development for Area120 at Google how she feels the tech giant creates a culture that not only supports but actively encourages innovation and how they’ve built startup culture into the Google identity.


How must organizations be structured in order to bring ideas through the pipeline?

Jana: At Google, we give employees the freedom to spend X% of their time on non-core job-related thinking – fresh ideas emerge when you’re given a chance to lift your head up and breathe.

It’s also critical to create an environment that accepts and even embraces failure and the learnings that come with it. Human behaviour is largely driven by incentives – so if you reward both success and timely failure, you will encourage employees to think big, get creative and take the necessary risks.

What are the essential ‘ingredients’ of a good innovation team?

Jana: The curiosity to ask a lot of questions and the guts to jump in and do something different, particularly when you’re an underdog.

Is it necessary for spin off companies to run like a start-up in a large organization in order to be effective?

Jana: Balancing the needs of your startup and the larger organization is key – cut out the overhead as much as you can to get your product out the door quickly, but do the necessary due diligence on the level of risk and complexity you are exposing the larger organization to.

Is it necessary to market innovation initiatives separately outside of the large organization?

Jana: It depends on your startup’s objectives and the level of risk you are exposing the larger organization to. Sometimes you can impact more users more meaningfully if you leverage the larger organization’s brand. Sometimes the larger organization’s brand introduces unnecessary complexity.

What’s the biggest barrier to success in innovating in large companies?

Jana: Overhead – decks, trackers, unecessary approvals processes and introducing too many cooks.

What kind of ideas are considered innovative at Google? Are they always big ideas or is there room for incremental innovation?

Jana: Innovation is a continuum. You can make incremental improvements to an existing product, you can launch a revolutionary product and you can do everything in between. All forms of innovation are important. If you want to do something transformative though, you should aim for a 10X improvement, as opposed to a 10% improvement.

Can you be financially conservative and still be innovative?

Jana: Scrappiness is key – resources need to be earned by demonstrating impact first. The fewer resources you have, the more creative you need to be in determining how to do more with less and the more effective you need to be at identifying and prioritizing what is truly important. When resources are scarce, the true entrepreneurs emerge.

What role does research and intellectual property play in your business?

Jana: Research is key, particularly in the ideation phase – ideas need to be vetted. It’s easy to fall into the trap of coming up with a cool idea that either doesn’t solve an actual problem, or doesn’t solve a big enough problem ie. you need to be able to impact at least millions of users.

Intellectual property is critical in protecting the idea and the company as you turn the idea into a product, then a business. But not all products need to be proprietary – sometimes you can have more impact on users and the ecosystem if you open source and encourage others to innovate with you. It’s important to stay focused on your product’s mission and be flexible about which mechanisms you use to get closer to achieving that mission.

Is the R&D budget a good reflection of the attention to innovation?

Jana: Money spent is not a proxy for success. The question is what you are doing both differently and impactfully per dollar spent.

How do you measure your return on investment (ROI) in Innovation?
Jana: You should look at ROI on innovation using a number of lenses. From a user standpoint, look at engagement metrics. From a business standpoint, look at your bottom line. From a mission standpoint, look at whether you’ve made the world a radically better place.

What’s your favorite example of innovation in a large company in the past 5 years?

Jana: SpaceX’s reusable rocket. Elon Musk believes this will enable the cost of access to space to be reduced by up to 100X. I can’t think of an example that better highlights the importance of both curiosity and guts in driving innovation. Revolutionizing access to space means getting closer to understanding humanity’s key unanswered question…what is life?


About the Authors

Clinton Ball is the Director of Client Programs and Initiatives at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, Ontario.  As the co-founder of a small software company, Clinton can relate to those building out a technology company and is passionate about helping other entrepreneurs build and scale their companies. When he’s not designing or delivering Accelerator Centre Programming you can find Clinton reading up on the latest marketing, technology and entrepreneurship resources, exploring a new trail or coffee spot, or trying to get better at his swing on the golf course.

Tabatha Laverty is the Community Manager at the Accelerator Centre. As a passionate storyteller and digital marketer, she has worked with entrepreneurs, not-for-profits, and public service agencies for 5 years – helping them develop content, share their stories, and build their brands. When she isn’t writing or meeting new entrepreneurs, you can find her spending time with her husband and 2 young children.