The Inside Startup: Meet Cisco’s Emerging Technologies and Incubation Group

“Startup” means risk. It prescribes small teams of individuals committed to an idea to make the world a better place…or to make themselves a little richer. Why not both? Regardless, new business ventures work under pressure to research, refine, and deliver an idea to the market. The alternative is shuttering for good.

But despite the high risk/reward framework, these Victory-or-Bust ventures don’t have the market cornered on agility and innovation.

With names like Innovation Kitchen, Lab126, The Design Lab, and the eponymous Skunk Works, big companies like Nike, Amazon, Apple, and Lockheed Martin have successfully combined small teams of people at the top of their technical game with large company resources to bring ground-breaking products to market.

Cisco sets aside space for an innovative team operating with a startup mindset. More than an experimental group, they hold themselves accountable the same way any startup should. When their efforts succeed, the impact of their innovations is transformative for the industry and customers.

Cisco ET&I: Cisco’s Big Bets for the Future

Several years ago, Cisco founded the Emerging Technologies and Incubation Group (ET&I), charging them with creating and advancing new products and technologies that earn Cisco’s Executive Leadership team backing. This unique division focuses on new solutions, new markets, and innovative problem-solving.

Using rapid ideation, agile methodologies, incubation, and validation, the group employs startup thinking with a venture capital (VC) backing model, which brings together committed, diverse teams of experts at the top of their technical fields. Those teams partner with universities, customers, and the Cisco Design Partner Program to deliver best-in-class research, next-generation solutions and software, plus customer co-innovation.

“This is one of the most exciting times to be an innovator.”

Vijoy Pandey, SVP of Emerging Technologies & Incubation

Catalyzing the Startup Mindset

In the startup space, ideas thrive or fail. Goals must be met, investors must be satisfied, and product adoption must grow exponentially. Miss a deadline? You might find yourself shuttering the company. The inherent speed and urgency that accompanies working with those stakes can be crushed by slow-moving parts inside large enterprises.

Cisco embraces the startup model by granting ET&I the freedom to work without complex multi-tiered oversight while keeping the stakes high.

Like any startup, delivering on expectations is job one. The group sets milestone-based targets akin to Series A, B, and C funding. The team operates under an Incubation Board of Directors who take the part of investors, providing a funding perspective and leveraging their business expertise to accelerate new ventures. That Board retains the ability to defund projects that aren’t working, aren’t moving fast enough, or aren’t maintaining their original merit.

Inside-Startup Success: Understanding the Venture Capitalist Mindset

Competition for funding is tight, and embracing the traits that make or break a company in the eyes of a venture capitalist can improve the chances of success. Investors in 2023 aren’t convinced by ideas alone—they want to see they’re working with organizations that are built to bring those ideas to market.

Common Red Flags for VCs:

Lack of a clear understanding of the market

Lack of strong enough teams and experts

Lack of a clear path to adoption and usage

Lack of execution against expected milestones

Cisco’s ET&I group takes these lessons to heart when building new market incubations: Get executive buy-in, identify a clear market need, bring in the right teams, and commit to a time-bound plan to achieve product-market fit.

Leveraging Partnerships to Identify Opportunities

Startups are about solving problems. Successful startups set out to thoroughly understand a problem space. They think critically about how innovation and technology can solve challenges and unanswered difficulties globally.

A common barrier to understanding those problems is the innovation team’s lack of insight, lack of understanding of customers’ pain points, and lack of diversity. Without factoring in how other people, cultures, employees, or even countries think about an issue, startups can rush toward uninformed ideas that won’t survive in the market.

ET&I partners with more than 20 universities to explore the full scope of problems ranging from Generative and Responsible AI to quantum security and quantum networks. In 2022, the Cisco Research team within ET&I funded more than 51 research projects, completed 69 publications, issued, and filed 33 patents, and hosted an AI Summit last August. Active research drives active results.

It is well understood that solving some of the world’s most complex problems requires a deep understanding of what customers’ pain points and challenges are. ET&I relies heavily on customer listening, insights from VC communities, and academic research to build empathy with the practitioner, accelerating Proof of Value, Time to Value, and therefore driving rapid product adoption. Leveraging this innovation ecosystem gives ET&I both a competitive edge at the forefront of new technological advancements while shaping its roadmap of its future in cloud-native spaces. It’s a win-win situation.

Investing in Bleeding-Edge Tech

For tech companies seeking to find an edge in an already hypercompetitive market, finding that competitive advantage is what separates the winners from the laggards.

In addition to researching emerging technologies, one area Cisco ET&I set themselves to create a bleeding-edge solution is cloud-native application security products. By following a startup model and engaging deeply with early adopters, they created Panoptica—Cisco’s Cloud Application Security product that enables businesses to more securely adopt modern application architectures demanded by the market.

Companies are frequently either reluctant or skeptical to immediately jump into nascent technologies such as application security that have yet to prove their viability in the market. However, times have shown that companies willing to invest in disruptive innovations are more likely to survive during times of digital transformation. Those who rise to the occasion benefit from building highly scalable, resilient, and fast innovative solutions. Finally, companies can both attract and retain top talent while also staying ahead of their competition.

Embracing an Updated Startup Culture

The world grows more interconnected every day, and businesses increasingly understand that a deeper idea pool comes from a greater diversity of employees. But attracting great talent can be challenging if your company is hanging on to monolithic working models. New visionaries have evolved workplace expectations.

To foster a creative mindset, it’s essential to enable team members to take time away from work to engage in activities that inspire and energize. A growing number of credible studies show that work-life balance is solidly linked to productivity and job satisfaction. Keeping the best talent requires creating standards in a company culture that recognizes that every team member has a life outside the workplace.

By embracing outside activities, providing flexible working hours, and focusing on productivity over facetime, companies looking to foster innovation free their teams to move forward and discover world-changing technologies.

By embracing a state-of-the-art hybrid environment that provides flexible hours, remote work, and an inclusive culture, teams can give their best. This environment encourages teams to focus on Horizon 3 ideas and celebrate both successes and failures. This startup culture also fosters the concept of “flash teams” where individuals and skills come together and work on projects like a movie and then disband when the production is completed. Not to mention that Cisco is adamant about powering an inclusive future for all.

There’s much to get right (and wrong) in embracing and developing a startup mentality. The model of a few committed individuals spending weeks of sleepless nights to achieve a goal isn’t gone, but the market understands those examples aren’t sustainable. 

To keep renewing, to keep creating, and to keep pushing boundaries, Cisco ET&I is creating a new sustainable model for delivering innovation.

Consider checking out more information about ET&I today.

Check out the latest Cisco Research findings and gain a competitive edge.

Learn more about Panoptica Simplified Cloud-Native Application Security.

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