An interview with Mey Jacobson, Innovation Community Manager at Netivei Israel, Israel’s national transport infrastructure company.
In the last two years, Netivei Israel has run two open hackathon events and a startup pilot program that you were in charge of. As a result of that, you have generated six fina candidates and three pilot projects sponsored by the CEO and funded by Netivei Israel. It is quite a lot for an organization that is part of a very conservative industry. Tell us how all this came about.
“It is a bit odd when one thinks about it, but when we started, there wasn’t any formal strategy about open innovation. Even the term “open innovation” is something that you and I are discussing, but to this day, it is not an official goal of the organization. Our leadership was talking about its wishes to open up to the outside world. We knew there was much activity out there, and we just wanted to have an experience and see what we could learn from it. The hackathon was a great way to do it instead of having a long term plan that would cost a fortune,
take forever to approve and get much resistance. What worked very well for us was to start small, show value and outcomes, and then repeat. This is how we transitioned from simple hackathons and into an acceleration program with trained internal mentors and substantial business-impacting issues. In short, I think we can say that we aren’t an organization that planned to do open innovation. We are an organization that just did it.”
One would expect a conservative company like Netivei Israel, a state-owned enterprise, to have a very structured plan for such developments. You’re saying that this was more of a bottom-up effort.
“Correct. I like to use the term “Guerilla Activity” since what we did was to recruit various stakeholders in the organization and ask them for simple contributions that they enjoyed providing. For example, we hired mentors, provided them with basic mentorship training, and invited to meet the startups as part of a hackathon event. They get a great personal experience, startups get access to knowledge and professional expertise, and Netivei Israel gains credibility in the Israeli ecosystem. We didn’t even set long-term expectations with mentors. We kept inviting them to various activities they enjoyed and gradually won them over and were able to get a greater commitment. The CEO was aware of this approach and endorsed it as he was
mindful of how complicated and costly the top-down approach would have been at that early stage.”
What sort of activities did you take up to generate higher levels of internal readiness for open innovation?
“The CEO was very involved from the start and openly declared that the hackathon will take place. At the hackathon, he announced the launch of the pilot program. He regularly spoke about the innovation activities during management meetings and also invited me to present the activities to the management team, which enhanced my credibility since I didn’t have an official innovation role at the time. Another great sponsor was the head of the Spokesmanship Department. Once you have senior enough sponsors, the company falls in line with what they
The mentors, which I mentioned before, were another critical element in my ability to prepare the organization for actually working with startups and generating successful pilots.”
Tell me more about the mentors. Do you consider their contribution to successful pilots to be major?
“Absolutely. I am not a professional authority within the company. I am the glue that brings this all together. However, mentors are also essential in taking startups from vague potential into real opportunities. Without their professional background, we would never be able to generate opportunities in a language that the organization and its decision-makers could understand and appreciate.”
Beyond professional knowledge, what about the procedural functions that traditionally stifle innovation such as legal, regulations, finance, IT, etc. How did you get those on board?
“We generated outcomes and a lot of positive buzz. Once management began expecting this “Guerilla” style activity to become a more official part of the company’s practices, we started getting support in various ways. For example, the legal department was able to find legitimate means by which we could fund the pilot projects. Another example is the support we are getting from the department, which is in charge of contracting suppliers, to have a way of publishing an official tender offer that suits this pilot program and is friendly to startups.”
People reading this interview who know who you are, where you were two years ago when you just started, may think that while your “just do it” approach seems appealing, in a conservative company, it might cause harm. What would you say to them?
“To clarify, “just doing it” doesn’t mean you go at it alone. From the earliest stages, you must have key partnerships in the form of sponsors and stakeholders who will help you move forward. These should be people with the connections and influence that allow you to go ahead and do it. In addition, you should get great external advisors, like the ones I had, who have experience in driving corporate innovation and involving other people internally to gain support and have a network that is helping you”.
What other advice do you have that could help increase the chances of success?
“You have to tie the activity to a central organizational purpose. Make sure that you are harnessing this project to something that leadership truly cares about. There has to be a real need that you are addressing through the events you run. This clarifies to everyone involved the purpose of doing it. Set yourself up for success by setting up an ambitious yet achievable definition of success. In addition, make sure that the first event you run is a success. Even if it doesn’t generate tangible outcomes, besides the event being fun and enjoyable, then it will leave a positive memory and a curiosity to have more.
In our case, the need we addressed was that the Israeli Ministry of Finance sent a directive requiring Netivei Israel to have an innovation department within a certain amount of time.
Naturally, a traditional consultancy analysis was performed with a very distinguished consultancy firm that generated many slides, describing a long-term plan that would never have succeeded in an organization like ours. The need I was able to address was to start moving in the right direction and be able to comply with the government’s directive eventually. This was a high priority for our CEO and management team.”
Tell me more about the activities and what they were able to accomplish
“Our recent hackathon was a national one, in cooperation with other major players in our transport ecosystem, such as Netivei Ayalon, Israel railways, Kvish 6 & Yaffe-Nof. Our partners in this event set the challenges, offered their mentors to startups, and I know of several connections that were made, and turned into projects. We also started an Innovation Lab at Sapir College and the Technion. We are the first state-owned enterprise in Israel to fund a pilot with a startup. This was an unprecedented decision that was driven by our CEO. In the beginning, we thought about getting the funding for pilots from Israel’s innovation authority.
However, we decided to run a pilot, six months in the activity. We thought it wouldn’t be fair for the startup to send them to the innovation authority at that point in time and have them go through another due diligence. Moreover, we had to think about the implications of such a tedious process on future startups wanting to collaborate with us.”
What do you see as the activities’ next stage of development?
“First of all, starting January, Netivei Israel will have a new Innovation VP, and I‘m sure that as a result, innovation and R&D activities will receive a much broader scope. I’m excited and looking forward to this development. With regards to the innovation community, several projects have started this year and are scheduled to continue into next year. From where I’m standing, it looks like the community activities at Netivei Israel should mature into something that involves the broader workforce and not just a selected few. These activities are very exciting both at the company level and for me, personally. The potential of connecting the knowledge, expertise, and execution power of Netivei Israel with the different mindset of the entrepreneurial world and
startups is driving the company to continue investing in startup relationships through exposure events, joint projects, and ongoing personal contacts.”