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Start-up collaborations can jump-start digital transformation in PE – EY

By Thomas Holm Moller (EY-Parthenon EMEIA Digital Leader) and Laura McGarrity (EY-Parthenon Principal, Digital Innovation) – Private equity can develop and deploy digital capabilities in a portfolio company by building in-house capabilities, entering into collaborations, acquiring businesses with the necessary capabilities or outsourcing the need completely. Ambitious PE firms should consider the currently under-explored route of partnering with start-ups to stoke digital transformation.  

Why work with start-ups? Based on successful examples in industries and organisations outside of PE, there is good reason for general partners to consider an ambitious partnership strategy: 

Expertise: Start-ups tend to have specific expertise and the relevant talent in place – including highly specialised talent that would be costly or impractical for a PE firm or portfolio company to hire. Collaborations offer immediate access to this talent. Property and casualty insurer MS&AD partnered with start-up Tractable to use the latter’s AI talent in claims processing and realised efficiency gains of around 360,000 hours every year. 

Agility: Start-ups are inherently agile and can accelerate time-to-market for new products and services, allowing companies to react more quickly to changing market and consumer demands. JPMorgan recently partnered with FinTech start-up Marqeta to launch a digital-only credit card. Freed from the burden of having to develop capabilities in house, JPMorgan was able to deploy within a year of announcing the partnership – a journey that otherwise might have taken many years. For PE firms with tight exit timelines, speed is a critical success factor.

Innovation: Start-ups tend to have bespoke technological capabilities designed to “solve big problems that people will pay for.” Coca-Cola partnered with Wonolo to build a platform that helped stock vending machines at retail outlets on-demand, a major challenge for the company and for the industry as a whole. 

The start-up partnership model has delivered a range of successful outcomes and is seen as an increasingly attractive route to digital transformation. According to the EY Digital Investment Index, 64 per cent of digital leaders have shifted focus from in-house development to M&A or collaborations to accelerate digital initiatives, while 45 per cent of executives surveyed said collaborations as an investment vehicle for digital capabilities exceeded expectations, compared with 39 per cent who said the same for homegrown capabilities. C-suite executives expect to increase investment in collaborations to accelerate digital initiatives over the next two years and to decrease in-house build investment.  

Scalable innovation at a speed that suits PE time frames
Despite potential challenges, such as aligning the different cultures of startups and private equity firms, the benefits of collaborations often outweigh the risks when it comes to the rapid delivery of scalable innovation capabilities. In order to use digital solutions as a value-creation lever at a pace conducive to exit time frames, PE firms must embrace new approaches and portfolio companies will need assistance. 

A well-managed start-up partnership model can be highly scalable when the PE firm itself is the partnering entity rather than a stand-alone portfolio company. With this engagement structure, the resulting digital solutions can be more easily rolled out to create value across the portfolio. There are significant economies of scale for a PE firm if they can embed themselves in the right start-up ecosystems and learn to identify opportunities in key areas that can be leveraged across the portfolio as opposed to assessing each company’s maturity level and appetite on an individual basis. 

As PE investors define value-creation opportunities at the onset of acquiring a company, they must think about digital from the start and what the right pathways and levers are to accelerate those capabilities within a two- or three-year time frame. 

It is also important to note that, while the agile testing and iterating approaches that start-ups can bring to the table can be a great way to usher innovative techniques into an organisation, engagement should not end there. In order to realise a path to scaling, companies will still have to take a close look at obstacles such as talent, operating model, governance and funding, and find approaches that make start-ups real partners in growth. 

Whichever approach PE firms choose, it is clear that in a world of increasing complexity with rapidly accelerating rates of digital transformation coupled with scarcity of talent, in-house development strategies are neither always the best nor the only potential solution. By engaging in start-up collaborations with the right approach and mindset – and an effective mediator – PE firms can realise rapid and effective digital transformation in their portfolio companies.

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