Orange Fab startup accelerator: one year later

One year ago, Orange Belgium launched its first "Orange Fab" with Board of Innovation's help. Part of an international network of customized accelerators, the 3-month program offered startups a chance to test their business on the Belgian and Luxembourgish markets.
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Through Orange Fab, three startups received executive sponsorship and structured in-house support from global telco giant Orange Belgium. It began with mentorship. Legal advice on GDPR and taxes, working with Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, assessing the startups’ hardware. The startups could use Orange’s data and networks to showcase their products and services. This boosted their business through privileged market access to Orange’s B2B and B2C customer base. Orange provided other resources such as workshops, an executive member who was their direct contact person, marketing support and a chance to attend key networking events. 

Each startup had an opportunity to benefit from the different departments within Orange, such as access to sales channels. This lent a big hand to their distribution and commercialization efforts. They also had the possibility of using Orange’s global presence to expand internationally. In return, Orange gained access to new markets and grew new business collaborations through companies that had made in-roads in areas that were commercially interesting for them.

Who participated

Charlie24

An on-demand roadside assistance service on an as-needed basis.

CommuniThings

A Smart parking technology that uses IoT to help drivers find available parking spaces, at the same time, helping parking enforcement officers manage parking violations.

Zembro

A Smart wearable device that acts as a personal alarm for the elderly, allowing them their independence while keeping them connected to care.

How the collaboration unfolded

We spoke with our partner-in-crime, Juliette Malherbe, Innovation Manager for Orange Belgium, about how the partnership worked from the corporate side of things.

The startups had access to a large network of customers, and that's a great added value for them. We give them access to mentorship on everything from communication, to copyright of their website. Basically, all the jobs that we do in-house.

Juliette Malherbe, Innovation Manager for Orange Belgium

Orange

“It is very interesting to look at new things that we don’t think about and to innovate within our reach. We had a good collaboration with the startups. It’s very interesting to see that startups are really more agile and need to do things very quickly. On the other hand, corporates are more slow, but we also have the resources they sometimes don’t have, which helps them to develop their projects.”

“Another interesting thing is that the executive members are really involved in the acceleration. We don’t always have the support of an executive member, but with Orange Fab there was really an interest at that level. They were involved in the project and we really had their support to accelerate the project where it otherwise could have been blocked at another departmental level. They really know what the startups are doing and are interested, so that helps a lot.”

Charlie 24

We spoke with Tommaso Lemessi, co-founder and general manager of Charlie 24, about how the process went for them.

“The support of Orange was always extremely structured. Every time we needed something, the contact person within Orange was always available for any questions or answers. Someone was always keeping the momentum of the project going on the Orange side of things. Our first person of contact was really enthusiastic about the project. It was like the oil in the engine.”

“From an organizational perspective, it’s a very big company with a lot of information flows. They follow specific processes, so to streamline things for a startup of 4 to 6 people is a different way of working, of course. As a startup, we can have a question and the next day make a decision, but Orange has to pass through a lot of channels because they need to make sure the decisions are made properly and that they have the ‘okay’ from everyone before moving forward.”

We've worked with a lot of other incubators and accelerators and Orange Fab was by far the most helpful, and made it the most efficient and easy for a startup to participate in.

Tommaso Lemessi

CommuniThings

Etay Oren, co-founder and CEO of CommuniThings, had this to say about the partnership:

“At the time we started in Orange Fab we were already on the eve of inaugurating our own sensors, which came as a very good fit with Orange needs in the sense that we are using NB-IoT as the network connectivity. And so the synergies between us and Orange were pretty natural, I would say. We needed the connectivity of Orange, and Orange needed us to show that there is traffic on the network. So for us it was almost a natural fit.”

“What Orange Fab allowed us to do was to actually get much more acquainted with the way things are done in the operating world and combine that with approaching the market together, which I think was a very mutual learning experience because it is a new field for them as well.”

It was certainly an enjoyable experience because everybody came to it with a very open mind and a voluntary approach to trying to understand one another better in order to address the market. We've combined our IoT offering and so it was a very good learning experience for us and for Orange, allowing us to pave the way to continuous cooperation, as is the case today.

Etay Oren

ZEMBRO

Zembro did not end up going through with the Orange Fab because it turned out it wasn’t a good match for either company from the point of view of service offerings, and the stage the startup was at in their development.

We were the oldest startup, the most mature. That’s where the mismatch started. Orange Fab was well organized. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of pitches. But we were very surprised they chose Zembro. Others would have been a better fit.

Johan De Geyter, CEO Zembro

What they learned

In the collaboration with Charlie24, the biggest disappointment was finding out late in the game about an additional complexity that wasn’t in line with Orange Belgium’s current strategic direction. Learning that it would not be possible to collaborate came as a bit of a blow. However, it was still interesting for Charlie24 and Orange to have the kind of discussions they did. On the whole, it was good for Orange to get out of the code and the data to look outside the box at what new options they could create. And Charlie24 developed their product offering in a valuable testbed with a trusted service provider. Following the development, both will continue to explore new ways of collaborating in an international environment.

Going forward

The first Orange Fab in Belgium and Luxembourg involved selecting great projects that were really innovative. During the next season of Orange Fab, though, the selection will be more narrowed down. The focus will now be on finding a real need in the market to solve customer problems through tangible solutions. Orange also wants to figure out beforehand whether it is the right company and platform to promote and sell a certain startup’s product, no matter how innovative and interesting it is. The most important criteria the next time around is choosing a startup that really matches with Orange from the point of view of the products and services it offers.

Despite the growing pains, there was a lot of added value for both the startups and Orange. The real win-win was in the collaboration with CommuniThings. Orange has a goal to become more developed in IoT and to bring in more revenue through new offerings. CommuniThings needs access to Orange’s connectivity. The two really found a great way to work together. It turned out to be the most successful partnership to come out of the process.

How to run a corporate innovation accelerator?

Learn more about corporate accelerators in our blog post.

Thanks!

I’m Julie de la Kethulle de Ryhove, Innovation Consultant @ Board of Innovation. Spreading innovation culture is in our DNA – if you liked the read, contribute to our mission by sharing this article.

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