A way to innovate – with less risk

August 25, 2014

Food retailers could fund entrepreneurs to gain an inside track on ideas for their stores.

Supermarkets so caught up in structured buying and selling every day can often justify a lack of time, mindset or resources to truly innovate.  

So much pressure to perform for today leaves many unwilling or unable to assess the future and rise to meet it. Yet if they don’t, they may seal their own fate.

Today’s fierce need for stores to differentiate leaves one key question to answer, in our view at The Lempert Report: “How can retailers innovate – and integrate worthwhile finds – without impeding their ability to compete today?“

They could learn from the Walgreen Well Ventures model, which Crain’s Chicago Business reports has more than $150 million available to invest. This venture and growth capital investment arm of the drug chain “aims to be the preeminent strategic investor and partner for companies with disruptive technologies, products and services that align with Walgreens’ mission to ‘help people get, stay, and live well.’”

To Walgreens, this is more holistic than being about making short-term money on other people’s ideas. The chain wants to drive innovation, commercialize disruptive ideas, and become “the entrepreneurial community’s healthcare and retail partner of choice.”  Their bigger picture is to bring these ideas into its stores to help differentiate them.

Among more than a dozen companies Well Ventures has funded so far include: SoCore, which completed one of the largest solar energy rollouts in the U.S. for the chain; Propeller Health, a pioneer in digital therapies to manage respiratory health; MC10, which makes electronics that stretch, bend and twist with our bodies; Aviary, a photo editor for Web and mobile with more than 70 million users globally; and ApniCure devices to treat sleep apnea.

Food retailers could map trends against their own capabilities gaps to determine the types of companies they may want to invest in – on an appropriate scale for their own needs and budgets. A few ideas we see could be in food packaging, nutrition, energy management, and the analysis of Big Data.