Venturing starts with leadership and mission-driven strategy

In the complicated world of healthcare, successful corporate venturing strategies have to provide powerful leadership, going beyond getting the deal done to guiding our own companies forward while giving promising startups the tools they need to succeed, said Humana’s Busy Burr, Vice President of Innovation and Head of Humana Health Ventures.

Busy spoke last week at the Global Corporate Venturing & Innovation Summit in Sonoma, Calif., as part of a panel titled “Harnessing Innovation Through Strategic Deal Flow Approaches.” The panel also included Shankar Chandran, Managing Director and Head of Samsung Catalyst Fund, and Mary Kay James, Vice President and General Manager of Tyson New Ventures. Kenneth Gatz, CEO of Proseeder, served as moderator.

The GCVI Summit gathers several hundred business leaders from the corporate venturing and innovation ecosystems to spotlight corporate venturing and innovation approaches, celebrate outstanding excellence, and honor the industry’s Rising Stars. Humana’s Saurabh Bhansali, a strategic consultant on the Health Innovation team, was recognized with a Rising Star Award.

Busy told the crowd that startups with the most promising and disruptive ideas often have little experience working with large corporations, let alone the complex, highly regulated realm of healthcare.

“I think our primary job is not transactions, but leadership,” she said. “I think we are charged with helping large corporations transform and move into spaces that are uncomfortable for them to move into. It’s not an easy job, and it requires lots of business partnerships inside and outside the organization. But I think what we’re actually talking about here is not how we’re organized but how we are leaders and how we are able to help influence and help move our companies into the future. Every day, I wake up and think ‘How am I going to continue to lead the charge, who do I need to influence, and what kind of activities do I need to engage in. What partners do I need inside the organization, outside the organization, to get this strategy to come alive?’”

Chandran, from Samsung, agreed, saying, “It’s hard to get the larger company to work with a startup that may have an 80 percent chance of failure. The venture arm has to find those companies and nurture them.”

The panel spoke at length about deal flow and when that becomes relevant to meeting corporate objectives. But Busy argued for putting strategy first, from the very beginning.

She said Humana’s investment strategy is guided by its overall company strategy – led by the Bold Goal to improve the health of the communities Humana serves by 20 percent by 2020 by making it easy for people to achieve their best health.

“There are many corporate venture firms that start with investing,” she said. “Others are led by strategy first; they focus on bringing in business that can help with the strategy.

“Humana has a corporate innovation strategy that is not just owned by Innovation but is owned more broadly across the whole enterprise. As a result, there’s broader alignment around the work we do on the ventures team. A lot of it has to do with where the strategy comes from, what kind of alignment you have at the top. At Humana we have a huge amount of partnership at the top.

“So strategy first; investment follows strategy,” she said.

Humana’s goal is to partner with and invest in companies transforming health care by changing the consumer and provider experience and fast-tracking the move toward care in the home.

For consumers, that means finding solutions that stop adverse health events and slow the progression of chronic disease. For providers, it means easing the shift from fee-for-service to value-based care. Overall, it means supporting and accelerating the trend toward caring for people where they most want to be – at home.

“At Humana, we have to think outside in and inside out,” Busy said. She cited the Bold Goal, noting that it’s being measured by the CDC’s Healthy Days measurement. “We have this mission-driven strategy. It’s not just a profit strategy. It’s really focused on changing healthcare in America. I hold my innovation team accountable to that. We have to tap into the outside world to find ways to improve people’s health, and we have to change the way we work internally to make that reality. It’s not enough to invest externally. You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the mission-driven piece?’”


Busy Burr spoke to the crowd at the Global Corporate Venturing & Innovation Summit. Other participants are, from left, Kenneth Gatz, Mary Kay James and Shankar Chandran.
Busy Burr spoke to the crowd at the Global Corporate Venturing & Innovation Summit. Other participants are, from left, Kenneth Gatz, Mary Kay James and Shankar Chandran.

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