When Daniel Saunders started out in tech, IT was just a bolt-on department, often to be found in some silent office or building well away from a company’s major functions.
Today Saunders has sauntered from Symbian, one of the first PDA operating systems, through the tech world to public service with the Israeli Embassy in Britain, to L Marks, where he is the company’s chief executive. Things are very, very different.
Tech “needs to be at the forefront of everybody’s mind,” he tells Red Herring, from L Marks’ London headquarters. The company calls itself a corporate innovation specialist. It could probably more accurately be described as a high-level matchmaker between slow-moving corporations and agile startups.
Since it was founded by serial entrepreneur Stuart Marks in 2012, L Marks has grown to supply some of the world’s leading companies, including BMW, EDF Energy and Arsenal FC, with cutting-edge innovators from Britain’s bustling tech scene.
The firm also invests in startups – it currently has 21 in its stable – and runs a variety of incubator programs hooking young companies up with corporates looking to double down on their tech offerings.
Contrary to the years after Symbian’s release, in 1998, the UK now has a thriving startup landscape, centered around London and its famed Silicon Roundabout district. The entire industry is “more symbiotic,” says Saunders, who stresses the importance of big and small brands “to be working together.
“Usually startups don’t know where to go to; how to get through the front door,” he adds. “Even once they’re in it’s tough getting their attention. Once they’re getting their attention it’s getting commitment to trial something, get some feedback, get results.”
This February L Marks announced its delivery of five programs supporting entrepreneurs, corporate executives and partners. Each is tailored to train participants in how big and small entities can help each other achieve mutually beneficial goals.
“We’re not your traditional accelerator: we’re much more about creating that close partnership between a startup and a corporate,” says Saunders. “By virtue of that we’ve created 30-odd accelerators, for want of a better word, which have created this engagement.”
Some of the solutions L Marks has helped facilitate may not steal too many headlines: its work with BMW has focused less on the “sexy” sides of mobility, like driverless tech and AR, than it has linking the German automaker with companies able to streamline its operations.
Likewise Arsenal, one of London’s premier soccer clubs, which has onboarded L Marks not to search for its next big star but to improve the matchday experience – something rarely spoken about except among fans. Innovations such as ordering food and drink via smartphones, Saunders says, could make a massive difference to those turning up to games each week. Augmented reality is another option L Marks is exploring.
The company employs a similar strategy when it comes to seeking out new British startup talent. London is “a victim of its own success in many ways,” says Saunders, who has found there are much better firms, pound-for-pound, in smaller cities such as Manchester, Edinburgh and Cambridge.
“I look at the UK tech scene as a whole,” he adds. “I find now a lot more exciting startups coming out of the rest of the UK. L Marks is proudly national.” All of this sleuthing means L Marks has positioned itself as one of the leading corporate innovation specialists working on the British Isles. It is helping dozens of young firms get their foot in the door of massive multinationals.