In-company start-up accelerators: the experience of Almirall and Ampersand Health

In-company start-up accelerators: the experience of Almirall and Amper...

Innovation & technology 08 July 2021

Having an in-company start-up accelerator has become an extraordinary source of innovation, ideas, learnings and a way to have the latest technology closer for many companies. The pharmaceutical industry is no exception and a leading company like Almirall has Digital Garden, an accelerator aiming to accelerate the growth of start-ups that offer innovative technology-based services and solutions throughout the patient journey.

In this podcast, Jan Brinckmann, Esade Professor of Entrepreneurship and Academic Director of eWorks, talks with Francesca Wuttke, CDO of Almirall and Nader Alaghband, cofounder and CEO of Ampersand Health, one of the start-ups at Digital Garden, to share with us their insights on how companies and start-ups can benefit from in-company accelerators.


Jan Brinckmann: Hello and welcome everybody to a new episode of the Esade Do Better podcast. I am professor Jan Brinckmann, entrepreneurship professor at Esade. And with me today is Francesca Wuttke, the CDO of Almirall SA. Welcome Francesca.

Francesca Wuttke: Hi, thank you for having me.

Jan Brinckmann: And our other guest is Nader Alaghband, the cofounder and CEO of Ampersand Health. Hello Nadar.

Nader Alaghband: Hi, thanks for inviting me.

Jan Brinckmann: It’s great to have you both here. Today we want to talk about what it takes to create an exciting in-company accelerator and the experience of Esade and Almirall working together to build an accelerator. We have Nadar representing a portfolio company, or participant company to be correct, and as the cofounder, he can tell us about his experiences. So, let’s start. Francesca, please tell us what in-company accelerators do, and why Almirall decided to create one.

Francesca Wuttke: Across the pharmaceutical industry it’s quite common and trendy to have an in-house accelerator and the idea is to bring technology closer to home. For us, it was really important. We were just embarking on our digital journey to present ourselves as startup friendly so that we could partner within the digital health ecosystem, and specifically partner with companies that could help solve our business needs. Our accelerator is a little different to most. Our digital garden was built to support the ecosystem globally. This year we have opened to startups from around the world. But our objectives are not operational, as many are within the pharma industry.

Our goal is to support the startups in our accelerator by providing them the expertise of our pharma leaders

Our goal is to support the startups in our accelerator by providing them the expertise of our pharma leaders. We do this through our mentorship programme where we pair this year’s cohorts with our high achievers – and with the idea that this enables extra consultancy. This enables them to grow in their digital acumen and their pharmaceutical acumen, and so we provide the specific team members who we believe will best serve each startup. So, the startups hopefully benefit from the pharma expertise, and the additional consulting brains. And our teams have the opportunity to learn from the startups directly, and get an experiential view of what it is like to be in a startup.

Their objectives are aligned with those of the startup, and they are asked to dedicate about 10% of their time – which is a big ask – and within the mentorship programme we have very senior leaders as well as high potential people. So, the idea is that they will transform into digital champions who are sitting at all the important tables across the organisation, and they will feel empowered to deliver on digital solutions and services.

Jan Brinckmann: That sounds like quite an activity and quite an effort on your side. This is also a collaboration as Almirall is working together with Esade. Tell us what Almirall can bring to the table? You have talked a little bit about the involvement of people – but what do you think is the core essence.

Francesca Wuttke: We are really excited about the partnership with Esade this year for several reasons. We thought that as a leading business school, startups could benefit from the experience and expertise of you and your team. As well as the entrepreneurial prowess that we think you can share with them. But also, internally to our associates, because this is a certification programme and they will get a certificate from Esade that becomes part of their professional leadership development. So, there is a component of mentorship, a component of professional training, and then there is the component of living and breathing the daily work of a startup.

Jan Brinckmann: I can confirm that for us it is extremely exciting to work with you and bring our experience to the table. We have been involved with various accelerators, but this is our first experience in the Pharma industry, and it’s been a very exciting opportunity. Let’s turn to Nader who has a participant perspective – can you tell what it is like to take part in such an accelerator?

Nader Alaghband: This programme has been an opportunity for a large number of people to continue to develop themselves professionally and to have new experiences, and build new networks. When your heads are down in an early-stage startup, opportunities to come up for air and get a different perspective are invaluable and difficult to achieve. A lot of people have benefited from it as a group experience. And everybody has developed through it as well. Two characteristics that are worth voicing are that this programme has been a safe space to engage with companies that could one day become customers. I’m not speaking about Almirall, but I’m speaking about learning about the inner workings of pharma companies. For somebody like me, for example, who has spent my career working in smaller organisations, lifting the veil and being able to see what happens within the type of enterprises that I’m supposed to be engaging with has been really valuable.

When your heads are down in an early-stage startup, opportunities to come up for air and get a different perspective are invaluable and difficult to achieve

We have been closely associated with several accelerator programmes – including one with the British National Health Service and another with PWC – and these were really great programmes – but this programme stood out for me because of the involvement of Esade and the opportunity to have a practical learning experience through interactions with Almirall and refreshing ourselves through the work that we have done with Esade.

Francesca Wuttke: Maybe I can just add to that. The learning is two-way and so we are learning a tremendous amount from the startups that have joined our second crop. But I will echo what Nadar said about the professional development from Esade. I think the learning modules are helpful for startups, as well as our Almirall team members.

Jan Brinckmann: It’s extremely exciting to see that collaboration and the classical pharma perspective – as well all the professionalism and dynamism that comes with it. I think it is an extremely beneficial perspective for us to see as educators and researchers. Accelerators are an extremely popular phenomenon, with many companies thinking about setting up their own accelerators to get closer to this dynamic startup world. Francisca, what would you say are a few core lessons or suggestions for corporate people thinking about setting up their own accelerator?

The pharmaceutical model is changing and now includes collaboration for digital solutions and services

Francesca Wuttke: Yes, that’s a good question. At Almirall we are really committed in our innovation, and our goal is to become leaders in the medical dermatological field. The pharmaceutical model is changing and now includes collaboration for digital solutions and services. And so, for us it was helpful to have that exposure to technology, but more importantly, the exposure to the entrepreneurial mindset. I would advise those within the pharmaceutical industry who are looking to start an accelerator to be mindful of your intended process performance indicators. If these indicators are operational metrics – which many of them are – just be aware that a pharma sell cycle can be 18 to 24 months and an acceleration programme is usually 3-12 months.

So, if your requirement is to get to a commercial deal within the time frame of the acceleration programme, I would say that you have to be careful – but it can be done. We have partnered with three of the four first-crop startup companies. But this happened after we closed their acceleration programmes. I think that’s another important point to note –once you are in the family we will continue to help and we look forward to watching our startups grow. We are focused on creating an alumni harvest, where we continue to help formally and informally. So, I would say in summary be clear on the objectives of the endeavour. We found it’s an excellent way to really accelerate the cultural transformation of an organisation by having this experience with entrepreneurs.

Jan Brinckmann: I can see that it’s just the start. The programme gets people up to speed and working together – and from there you have created lifelong relationships for professional collaboration. Turning to the entrepreneurial perspective Nader, for people who are thinking about joining an accelerator what kind of lessons or advice would you offer.

It’s important for companies hosting accelerator programmes to be transparent about their objectives

Nader Alaghband: Yes, that’s a very good question. There are obviously a lot of different considerations, but one that Francesca addressed I would also highlight, which is that it’s important to understand what the objective of the accelerator programme is from the other party’s perspective. There are some accelerator programmes that are about developing you as a business, there are others that are about finding innovation and collaboration opportunities. It’s important for companies hosting accelerator programmes to be transparent about their objectives – so that the startups that are trying to get into them are pre-qualified to have the same objectives. The first thing I would say is that it is necessary to understand the objectives of the other party. The other thing is to use the accelerator programme as an opportunity to develop as many people within the company as possible, and in our company almost everybody has attended at least one of the sessions and taken something home from that. So, thinking of it as group activity is a good thing. It’s also important from a professional development perspective, and because you are bringing new ideas into the company, and this fosters a new perspective that people can build on. Those are my two main observations.

Francesca Wuttke: That’s a good point, because obviously all sessions aren’t of interest to everyone, either from the mentor side or from the startup side. So, allowing that flexibility for those to join who stand to benefit most from the session is important. Again, thanks to Esade for giving us that flexibility and changing the agendas and class lists to accommodate us.

Jan Brinckmann: Absolutely. We see that it’s a very dynamic space. We often find that the people who get involved the most are those who make the most progress. It is really important to focus on the goals and outcomes and to make sure that you achieve those in this very limited time – and that you have a plan for afterwards about how you will you continue and progress. Well, our time is already up and so thank you so much for joining us today and I wish you both all the best.

Francesca Wuttke: Thank you so much.

Nader Alaghband: Thank you for having us, and thanks Francesca.

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