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Ignite Sweden

Working with start-ups is vital for Saab’s future

Saab works with start-ups because the world is filled with possibilities and we can’t and shouldn’t try to do everything ourselves. We identify our needs, scout for the right technology at the right time and constantly evaluate new solutions. It’s all part of Saab’s innovation culture, says Karl Eldebo.

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These days, the range of technologies is so vast and the rate of change so quick that it’s impossible for one company to do it all. Thus, a key element of Saab’s innovation strategy is to make use of external expertise. And in this day and age that increasingly means working with start-ups.

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Karl Eldebo
Karl Eldebo, Team leader start-ups.

“We establish what is core for us at Saab and then define the things that we’re not supposed to be the best at. Then we start collaborating with people and organisations who are the best. That often means working with a start-up, and we scout the best ones to see if we can adapt their technology to our needs,” says Karl Eldebo, who leads the team that coordinates start-up work at Saab.

Why do we need start-ups?

In Eldebo’s view, there are several compelling reasons for working with start-ups:

  • The constant churn of new technology makes it impossible, even for a diverse and dynamic company such as Saab, to cover all the bases. We must be open to external ideas;
  • It isn’t economically viable to do it all. If Saab can tap into the expertise of a company that has already developed a technology that answers our needs, it’s a quicker and cheaper option;
  • Start-ups work as a fast, agile and ready-made complement to the longer-term collaborations with academia in research projects over several years;
  • The research programmes are vital but they’re not cheap, so there needs to be an acceptance that we can also go beyond our walls for technological needs; and,
  • There’s so much talent out there! Any initial scepticism in Saab about the team’s ability to find potential partners when it started two years ago was soon dispelled by it quickly finding a ‘long list’ of 200 possibilities.

How do we work with start-ups?

In 2018, Saab set up a network of innovation managers in its business areas that is now led by Karl Eldebo, who says:

“The innovation managers act as a link between the business areas and the start-up group. They are the key to finding out from engineers in their section whether an idea could be of interest, and to finding out the needs from the engineers themselves.”

Ignite Sweden
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Saab wins Best Start-up Hack and Best Start-up Collaborator at Ignite Awards 2019

Saab was awarded, not one but two awards, during the annual Ignite Sweden Day Conference in Stockholm for our successful collaboration with start-up company Attractive Interactive.

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Much of the group’s work involves scouting for new start-ups. This involves going to technology fairs and start-up networking events, speaking to start-up incubators, and companies in other industries about their start-up finds, and keeping track of international innovation initiatives.

“For example, we may identify Austria as being a hotbed of ideas, or a business area comes to us with a need for eye recognition software. We’ll find some possible candidates and cut this down to a short-list, from which one or two ideas are selected for funding.” If an idea doesn’t end up being used, the lessons from it inform new thinking and new directions, or it’s revisited down the line if the timing is better.

Sometimes there is also the chance to collaborate under the Sweden innovation umbrella; for example, SITIS, an ongoing project involving Swedish and Indian companies, academia and government organizations to use connectivity, automation and AI for reducing traffic accidents in India.

Is our approach working?

There’s no shortage of potential start-up candidates, but, for Karl Eldebo, the timing is so important. “Since the rate of technological change is so fast, Saab needs a good source of supply and to react faster. We have to find a company before it develops in another direction, or before the technology moves on.”

“We’re getting better at knowing what we're looking for and then scouting to find start-ups at the right moment, with the right funding, right people and the ability to start a collaboration with us.”

Slush
Slush, event in Helsinki.

Previously, one barrier to success was the complicated Non-Disclosure Agreements and Proof of Concepts in the contractual process. But recent work to simplify these aspects are facilitating more start-up collaborations, and Eldebo is excited about the possibilities.

“Saab is really getting to grips with the future. We understand that we have to change, and we need to find the spot between what's happening now and what's further off.”

“I’d say to Saab colleagues: if you have a good idea or recognise a technology need, come to us, and I’d say to start-ups: get in touch with us and perhaps we can do business together.”