When I started at Itanna around a year ago, tasked with joining Honeywell Group’s team and building a start-up accelerator, quite literally from scratch, seemed like quite the adventure I was ready to take on. Fast forward a year, and as I glance around at the beautiful space we’ve created, in the form of the Enterprise Factory, and I see our Cohort intensely focussed on Friday’s Demo Day, I thought I might allow myself a moment or two of retrospection.
Incubators, accelerators and other such business support mechanisms for the tech start-up world are, whilst not quite the norm in the ecosystem, growing in popularity. Whilst there may be some friendly competition between incubators, in terms of funding and scouting for top-quality cohorts to bring on the journey with us, essentially, we each have our own USPs; our own areas in which we excel.
Itanna, for me, as a concept, stood out from the crowd due to its connections with Honeywell Group Ltd; one of Nigeria’s largest, and most prominent conglomerates. Whilst our country’s larger enterprises aren’t always known for their ability or even willingness to pivot or embrace change, here was one of them not just looking to the future but also investing in it – actively.
Spanning a number of sectors, including agriculture, energy and infrastructure, and employing tens of thousands of people across the country, the company’s mantra had always been, “using enterprise to make our world better”. Understanding that technology and its adoption on a grand scale will impact all businesses at every level, Honeywell Group, as a major business influencer, as a conglomerate who relies ever more heavily on technology and as a family-owned business with almost 50 years’ experience in building business and facilitating enterprise, decided to turn their attention to igniting tangible opportunities for African technologists looking to build their own companies. This was built around three core pillars: acceleration, investment and mentorship.
This, for me, was a game-changer for the Nigerian corporate world. Itanna, via Honeywell Group, was built as a means to address the considerable gap between tech start-ups and corporate Nigeria. On the surface, Itanna has similitude with other incubators in our community; we offer business reviews, we bring in leading industry experts who assist with business admin [legal and HR], product design and UI/UX, tech reviews, direct investment, mentorship and so forth. You’ll agree that these are pretty standard offerings made by accelerators, although naturally the quality of each offering is where accelerators can make or break their reputations. But, in short, these are the essentials when supporting tech start-ups.
Where Itanna stands out from the community is its unparalleled opportunity for its Cohort to connect with Honeywell’s extensive business network and it has been fascinating to see our Cohort this year interconnect with businesses and business personalities outside of the usual tech ecosystem. And there will be more of this to come. Connecting innovation and big business – enabling the two to coexist and thrive off one another, is where Itanna is a stand alone acceleration entity.
The Programme in Action
When we launched the Itanna programme back in August, we received over 200 applications during the call to application from across Africa, although primarily from Nigeria. Our investment criteria were:
1) Pan-African Market Potential: Startups with potential to scale across multiple African countries.
2) Strong Founding Team: Strong founding teams with a clear vision, technical capability, domain/sector knowledge, executional skills, and strong sense of integrity.
3) MVP with Traction: Startups with a Minimum Viable Product that have been launched. Also, Startups should be able to show traction either in the form of user growth/adoption or partnerships.
Over a four month period, a carefully crafted programme was created to accelerate the growth of the cohort companies through a mix of workshops, classes, mentorship sessions and talks with experienced entrepreneurs.
The journey from then, to now – as we collectively prepare for Demo Day on Friday, has been striking. We’ve seen challenges, which have been addressed head-on. We’ve seen innovation, growth and business breakthroughs. We’ve seen MVPs transition into the beginnings of fully-fledged start-ups. At a recent Ask Me Anything event at the Enterprise Factory, I even saw one of our Cohort founders boldly go up to Honeywell Group’s Executive Director, broker a conversation and give him his company’s elevated pitch – such spirit of opportunism and entrepreneurism is core to the Itanna way of doing things. Access to decision makers, to leading lights in the business community, is what we offer.
Spirit and opportunism only gets you so far though. Now – as Demo Day looms, we are hyper-focussed on growth and operational metrics, corporate governance, regulatory compliance, go-to-market strategies and revenue/pricing models; all the areas investors fixate on. My role, as Head of Investments for Itanna, is to prepare our cohort for the tough questions that will be asked of them by battle-hardened, highly experienced investors. We want to see our men and women secure investment, so they can embark on the next stage of their entrepreneurial journey. We want them to scale, to employ people, to build a company of worth.