When Oracle announced it was expanding its global cloud startup accelerator programme that kicked off in Bangalore in India last year, the choice of southwest city Bristol, England as its UK location may have surprised a few. Standing in the Engine Shed, a startup enterprise zone collaboration between Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership, Reggie Bradford, senior vice president of product development at Oracle, was gushing.
“I think Bristol is no different from the incredible startup ecosystems that are developing all over the world,” says Bradford. “I’ve spent a lot of time as a startup [person] and understand the challenges, and Bristol is an exciting place to be.”
For most people around the world, Bristol is generally regarded as a small place to be. There are 36 towns called Bristol, the largest of which is the one in the UK but this one, England’s sixth-largest city, certainly has a history of innovation. The Engine Shed, originally built by Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and one of the oldest railway termini in the world, is now home to SETsquared, ranked the top university incubator in the world. The area also boasts HP Labs, HP’s second largest innovation facility, Cray’s EMEA headquarters and research lab, Dyson’s UK HQ, and of course Oracle.
“To make this work, and this is a generational shift that starts with education and with the universities, you need an ecosystem, access to capital and mentoring,” says Bradford. “These are all ingredients that make Silicon Valley music. We see those ingredients here in Bristol. It’s maybe about 10 years behind the Valley, but it’s here.”
Oracle’s other start-up cities include Delhi, Mumbai, Paris, São Paulo, Singapore and Tel Aviv. This expansion of the original programme is, says Bradford, an indication of its initial success in Bangalore and it represents a “multi-million dollar investment” around the globe. Apparently, the same rules apply: Oracle will select five start-ups at a time for a six-month programme with “mentoring from technical and business experts, state-of-the-art technology, a co-working space, access to Oracle customers, partners and investors, and free Oracle Cloud credits,” according to an Oracle statement.
You reap what you sow
Of course, when global corporations start to throw money at startup programmes it’s natural to be cynical. Oracle is not unique: IBM has its own global accelerator programme, as does Microsoft. So why do they do it? Is it about creaming off the best ideas to try and keep the corporate machine relevant?
“I must say, Oracle as a company is really changing as well,” admits Bradford. “We are facing the same disruption and adversity as others in the market, so that’s part of [the reason for] our expansion in the cloud which we’ve been focussed on in the last 10 years.”
Bradford also refers to the “farm system in baseball” where major league teams use smaller feeder teams for talent acquisition. It’s an honest analogy: he admits that the programme gives Oracle an “early look at the companies of tomorrow” helping to sate the hunger of its 420,000 enterprise customers around the globe. “Our customers are looking for innovation – they are looking for us to bring them startups,” he adds.
While Oracle is not taking equity stakes in the startups, it will expect them to use its cloud services. Bradford says this is not a requirement but the company is hoping it’s also an opportunity to get feedback on Oracle products.
The founder and CEO of Vitrue, a cloud-based social marketing and management firm acquired by Oracle in 2012, working with startups is close to Bradford’s heart. He is not a fan of Silicon Valley’s “gravitational pull” and recently wrote a blog imploring startups to resist the temptation to pack up and head to California. As he sees it, other cities and regions are more cost-effective and startups have a better chance of succeeding away from the Valley bubble.
But it’s his understanding of the specific challenges of a tech startup that make him a good choice to lead the programme. He says that with Vitrue his biggest challenge was finding revenue and customer references and this, he says is where the Oracle programme will be invaluable to its selected few… so who are the selected few?
In Bristol, two companies who are already working with Oracle - Yellow Dog and Interactive Scientific – talked about the benefits, access to global markets and partners, mentoring and so on but for Gareth Williams, founder and managing director at Yellow Dog, it’s really about one thing.
“The value of an accelerator is to shorten your time to market,” he said during the Oracle event in the Engine Shed. “Ultimately, it’s all about sales. You need the right people to help you to get the sales.”
In what is essentially an arms race for innovation at the moment, Oracle cannot really be blamed for cosying up to impressionable young businesses. On the one hand it faces the age-old cliché, “innovate or die”, and on the other, the pressure of customers desperate for new ideas to differentiate. If the corporate machinery helps to develop new businesses and employment along the way, what’s to knock?
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