Corporate Innovator Profile

Name: Hans Balmaekers
Title: Chief
Total Corporate Innovation Experience: 8 years
LinkedIn: Hans Balmaekers

This month, EnterpriseInnovation and 352 Inc. are partnering with Innov8rs to bring the leading global innovation conference to Atlanta on March 22-23. Hans Balmaekers, an 8-year veteran of corporate innovation and intrapreneurship, recognized Atlanta’s growing innovation community – a community built on collaboration and co-creation – as an ideal place to host the next Innov8rs. We sat down with Hans to chat through the largest challenges facing intrapreneurs and how companies can seize on the opportunities of corporate innovation.

More companies are making innovation a priority for the survival of the organization, yet many are not built to function nimbly or innovatively. How can entrepreneurial agents within these organizations make progress through the red tape inherent to large enterprises?

From the hundreds of intrapreneur stories I’ve heard at our events during the last years, I can share a few lessons.

This may be obvious, but still I would like to point out that your idea or initiative should be in alignment with the overall strategy of the organization. Ideally, it’s not just your idea: you have at least tested it and improved it through interactions with customers, colleagues and others. If whatever you want to pursue does not have the potential for actual growth or at least substantial improvements, you rather find your next thing instead of burning your career capital.

Also, it’s crucial to build alliances proactively even when you don’t have yet this idea to push for.  Find people at all levels and functions to work with you, or at least support you. Some are active sponsors, freeing up resources and opening doors. Some will prove to be more passive, only to activate when things could go wrong. Understand that they too take risks with supporting you, and try to figure out what’s in it for them.

For the individual intrapreneur, you’re in fact the CEO of your idea which means a lot more than just having that idea. I’d say one of the characteristics of successful intraprenuers is being able to navigate organizational charts and politics to influence beyond job title.

Obviously if your company has an official innovation program, some things might be easier than if you’re the lone wolf trying to move the needle. Yet still, even with more official support, you can’t manage without support throughout the organization.

In your work bringing intrapreneurs together, what are the most common challenges you’ve seen them face around the world?

Most of the people in our audiences are responsible for innovation in a region or unit, or for company-wide programs (labs, accelerators) and centres. They have been given more resources and bigger mandates; their main challenge is showcasing at least some returns on the short term.

While senior leadership might say the right things – this is a transformation, this is culture change, this won’t happen overnight – the pressure is real for them and thus for you to report something coming out of all those efforts.

In startup land, we know 95% or more startups will fail, yet we seem to believe intrapreneurship programs should produce big-bang hit products one after the other. Not only is that impossible from a product-market-fit and business model perspective (as with startups), it’s even more impossible because of the entropy inherent to large organizations.

Getting HR on board for new incentive models, keeping Legal and Branding happy whilst prototyping with customers, that all takes time. Your CEO can be on national television claiming innovation is everything in your company,but in real life that doesn’t mean a lot.

So while we are getting somewhere – more resources, a genuine commitment to change, a shared understanding of how innovation could be done better and faster – it still takes time, and in a world of quarterly earnings, time is the hardest resource to get.

Do you see any differences in how innovation is tackled around the world?

I’m not sure if there’s a tangible difference in how geographies impact innovation, but I do see a difference in companies being serious about change and innovation, and those who do it for the sake of PR only. The latter group probably thinks they’ll be ok anyway, think they’re fit for the future but still wants to show the world they are also running around with post its to attract new recruits. I do think your organization is in actual danger, if that’s the (honest) motto.

Still, over the last years I have witnessed a sincere commitment to change things fueled by a authentic belief that the world has changed already, is changing faster all the time, but still will never change as slow as today. Beyond the hackathons and bootcamps – that’s fun! – they are looking for ways to scale and sustain innovation efforts. That ultimately comes down to fundamentally changing every bit of how your company is operating. That’s not an easy thing, and that will have consequences for everyone top to bottom (which is why it’s often being resisted, too).

So, for me the leadership commitment and organizational support for innovation is the only decisive factor, regardless of location or industry.

Multinational companies often centralize their innovation labs in major cities around the world. How can intrapreneurs leverage the resources of other innovators in their city while remaining focused on the specific needs of their organizations?

Innovation does not happen in a team, nor in a company. It happens in ecosystems. The days are gone for any single company to go at it alone. It simply won’t work.

So, every organization must ask itself – which ecosystems should I play in, contribute to, and strengthen? Don’t think of this as your traditional value chain; there are several adjacent fields that you should want to take part in. At the same time, it does not help either to spread yourself too thin and be everywhere.

My guess is that most companies are now getting strategic about choosing the ecosystems to engage in and how. You can’t just show up as the big guy and dictate the conversation; size in a way is irrelevant. Talent, technology, pace and ideas are relevant. And then it’s up to the intrapreneurs to engage with the others innovators in those regions to embody that commitment to collaboration.

Also, they play a key role in bringing all the good from the region to the mothership. Being an outpost that’s just that – a small team far away from the central nerves of the company – will for sure be a recipe for failure. Intrapreneurs operate both on the local and global level.

How does Innov8rs help bring those communities together?

We’ve been to more than 15 cities around the world. By design, we are agnostic of frameworks and approaches, of sectors and clusters; our focus is to bring together the local ‘heroes and gurus’ and the global network at all over events; hence our tagline the #1 glocal community for corporate innovators.

Of course challenges differ across companies and industries, but often the core of those challenges is pretty similar. We create the space for sharing and collaboration beyond traditional barriers, and the good thing is that your typical innovator loves that. Is keen on understanding how others are doing it. Wants to build new relationships.

We (still) often hear at our events- this is great, I thought I was the only crazy one. Or: finally, people who also get it. And people just love to have those in-depth conversations, share solutions to challenges. That’s why we do what we do.

What about Altanta’s innovation community attracted your attention for the Innov8rs conference?

We were getting positive signals left and right about what was happening in Atlanta already, when we were asked by Robin Bienfait to host our next event in Atlanta. Robin spoke at our Silicon Valley event in November 2016, when she was still heading up enterprise innovation at Samsung. Now in her new role at Atlanta Tech Park, she thought it was the perfect place and time for her to host us, gather the local innovators and bring in those from other parts of the country.

The one thing I have noticed since we started working with all the partners and speakers is the focus on collaboration. Even competitors in the traditional sense work together for boosting the region’s ecosystem, and all care deeply about increasing Atlanta’s profile. That’s something I never witnessed before, and if you can keep up that spirit, the sky is the limit.

In your opinion, what are the ideal characteristics of a corporate innovator?

Let me answer that by stating the one big difference between entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. Whereas both set out to solve big problems in ways not done before, and figure out a business model that works, all through experimentation and prototyping and all that, the intrapreneur needs to master one crucial thing to succeed: they must be able to navigate the corporate environment.

Politics, stakeholders, and even PR (internally and externally) – all successful intrapreneurs I know are not the crazy inventors or the blind-sighted entrepreneurs, they are masters in influence, in persuasion.

Our friends at Gapingvoid Culture Design Group summarized it perfectly in their booklet with takeaways from our Toronto event last November. Entrepreneurs are pirates. Intrapreneurs are influencers. And: true innovation comes from true influence (PDF).

Innov8rs Atlanta takes place at Atlanta Tech Park on March 22-23. As part of Innov8rs’ focus on empowering intrapreneurs to drive change, Robert Berris, 352 Inc. VP of Product Design and Innovation, will lead a masterclass workshop on design thinking. Claim your spot today at Innov8rs.


352 is an innovation and growth firm. Leading companies hire us to find billion-dollar opportunities, build killer new products and create hockey-stick growth. We bring grit and new-fashioned thinking to innovation, digital development and growth marketing.