When a company needs to incorporate a new technology into its product or service, it normally has a few options for finding an innovative tech partner. Popular approaches include participating in a local startup innovation hub or traveling to conferences for a potential fit. But even in normal times, this can be inefficient. In a pandemic, it’s impractical or impossible.
This is the problem that Seattle startup Moonbeam is aiming to solve: serving as a corporate matchmaker and facilitating virtual meetings between newly acquainted potential partners.
Moonbeam Exchange is a database of 2 million companies that includes all of the businesses that have received funding for government projects, plus “deep technology” companies that are focused on innovation. For a fee, companies can search the database for the best fit for their project.
Businesses are then able to connect through Engage, Moonbeam’s set of tools for business conferencing that was designed for corporate technology scouts, entrepreneurs and innovation leaders. Engage incorporates virtual reality, voice recognition and AI note-taking to facilitate design thinking, pitches, negotiation and business model planning. Moonbeam is currently recruiting partners for the alpha release of Engage.
“We use data to connect innovation with supply and demand. We use VR and next generation interfaces to facilitate remote design thinking,” said Moonbeam CEO Nirav S. Desai. “We embed AI across the whole tools suite, helping guide and facilitate intuitive group and user actions, enabling productive, creative collaboration across the world.”
The five-person startup launched in July 2019.
Moonbeam Exchange was developed in partnership with California-based Ratio Innovation Management and is being used by startups, corporate innovation labs and economic development councils, Desai said. Portland’s TechfestNW, which was postponed from April to August, will be using Moonbeam Exchange to drive its Reverse Pitch track.
Desai is an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Electrical Engineering. He was at Booz Allen Hamilton, a national IT consulting company, for more than 14 years, working on immersive technology as the firm’s Seattle-based chief technologist.
Other companies that help businesses identify innovation talent include Crunchbase, PitchBook and others. Desai said that Moonbeam differentiates itself by focusing on th corporate venture capital, while others are targeting private venture capital.
Desai is particularly interested in helping companies connect with startups outside of known technology corridors. He cited, as an example, Alaska Air’s development of drones to handle cargo, a partnership with Sabrewing Aircraft, based in Camarillo, Calif.
“Innovators are everywhere, but those outside of innovation hubs rarely get discovered, or even mentored. Moonbeam lets corporate innovation labs source, solve, sell and invest in capability globally,” he said. And these collaborative partnerships can thrive, “without one needing to get on a plane.”
We caught up with Desai for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What does your company do? Technology scouting currently relies on serendipity. Organizations invest in co-working spaces, host hackathons or attend conferences in the hopes that they will find interesting companies to partner with. Moonbeam organizes serendipity. We use data science, AI and VR to help corporations find and integrate external innovator capabilities into product lines.
Rather than flying from incubator to accelerator to innovation hub to conference to meet a litany of startups, most of whom would not fit with your company, we have a database of over 2 million deep technology companies searchable by capability. Once you find the set of companies you want to work with, we enable natural and intuitive VR interfaces to facilitate remote strategy sessions.
Inspiration hit us when: After three months working remotely with a colleague in North Carolina to develop an immersive strategy for a former company, in a fit of desperation, we decided to meet in Los Angeles with a whiteboard to knock out the details of the strategy. Over two days, we accomplished what had eluded us for three months. Additionally, we heard pitches from a number of startups that enriched the partnership component of this strategy.
In LAX, waiting for a delayed flight home, I had the realization that everything we had just done in a few productive days could have been accomplished months earlier if we had the right tools. Shortly thereafter, I set out to build this platform.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap and angel. We seek to disrupt corporate innovation and corporate venture capital, so we’re looking for a partner that sees and feels the value of the platform. We had the good fortune to find an angel investor who helped us get off the ground and we have not needed to raise additional funding yet. We expect to raise our first round this coming summer.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Success through partnership. Customers need a comprehensive solution that makes them more productive. They don’t care if you make 100% of your solutions, or if you do it in partnership with others. We have partnered with several core technology providers letting us focus on our core while driving value to our customers. We don’t need to reinvent every wheel; we instead seek to partner and succeed with the best wheel makers in the market.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: We looked at outsourcing development to Portugal. Though we ended up developing our platform in the U.S., looking at Portugal helped us get smart on the innovation economies of Europe and how they collaborate with the U.S. Moonbeam was largely inspired by the founding team’s experiences in U.S. corporate innovation. The insights we gained from our time in Europe opened our minds to the global innovation market.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: With $700 billion in domestic R&D, the innovation addressable market is huge! Add enterprise technology to that and one can easily over-engineer a solution. We had a clear understanding of our challenges based on our experience supporting corporate R&D and innovation and at times we built a solution too focused on what we wanted to use and not the most-likely-to-adopt new patterns. Taking some time in a different context, interacting with different ecosystems, really helped us refine our personas and reprioritize our feature roadmap.
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As someone who has no only led a transformation of how people create content, but someone who is transforming economies to help people access their potential, he would understand the productivity enhancement and the efficiency that our solutions offer. We’re sure he’d offer insights and advice that no one else could match.
We have bold aims:
- To transform how local economies create opportunities
- To help people build meaningful relationships and collectively think through big thoughts
- To enable intuitive and creative collaboration in 3D
Gates represents not only technological disruptions for good, but also a commitment to social development, envisioning the future and success through partnership.
Our favorite team-building activity is: We have an immersive gaming culture among our founders. As we grow and these gatherings become harder, we want to have citywide scavenger hunts (e.g. the Post Hunt in Washington, D.C. and Miami) as team-building exercises.
Collaboratively solving group challenges that get us out in this great city followed by a good meal is a great way to bring a team together through healthy competition. Wandering through Seattle, talking freely while our minds are preoccupied with strategy, builds bonds that extend beyond the office.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Flexibility, tenacity and the enthusiasm to want to make a difference.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Know your buyer. Understand the psychology of your target customers. Learn their motivations and their fears. Make sure your product addresses these. It is better to get deep traction from a small set of users than broad and infrequent use from an unenthusiastic customer base.