Licensors, licensees, and retailers have been launching incubator, accelerator, and crowdfunding-based innovation programs in an effort to find new ideas for properties and products that could succeed at retail and that they might not find through traditional means.
The programs vary from one another in many ways. They begin at different stages of a property’s or product’s lifecycle, from undeveloped fan ideas, to fully formed but not-yet-launched or funded concepts, to ideas that are past the start-up phase but need a second round of financing to grow. They offer different types of services and support, including financing (in some cases), licensing access and expertise, retail space, and/or other resources. Some involve fan feedback to enhance the chances of future success. All offer their sponsors a means to discover and nurture innovative new ideas.
Among the players with relevance to licensing that have been active in launching these types of programs are:
- Sports licensors. NBALab is an R&D incubator looking for new products and concepts; it has supported licensees including Sprayground and Pintrill. The Duck Store and University of Oregon Brand Management launched the Oregon Incubator Program to help entrepreneurs bring their unique licensed product ideas to fruition, giving them a University license with no upfront fees as well as space in the stores. The NFL Players Association and several partners set up the OneTeam Collective as a business accelerator for companies with strong concepts that would benefit from NFL athlete relationships.
- Toy companies. Jazwares launched JazWings as an idea incubator that has imported the Hong Kong-origin animation and licensing property Panda-a-Panda to the U.S. market and has other properties in the pipeline. Lego Ideas has brought to life, as limited editions, fan-generated concepts such as a lab set with female scientists and a ship in a bottle, and, most important from a licensing perspective, Lego Minecraft, which transitioned from a limited offering to an ongoing brand. Mattel has worked with Quirky, an online innovation community, to solicit new ideas.
- Entertainment studios. Nelvana paired with Toon Boom and WeKids for an incubator program focused on kids’ animation. Disney launched the Disney Accelerator, which offers a three-month mentorship for 10 companies per year, many focused on technology. Sphero, maker of a realistic Star Wars BB-8 droid; Pley, a toy-rental subscription service that has offered Disney Princess mystery boxes; MakieLab customizable 3D-printing kits; and littlebits, a droid maker kit, were all participants. Sesame Ventures was set up to support emerging companies that change children’s lives.
- Retailers. The Target + Techstars program (Techstars is a platform that works with several of the initiatives listed here) is a three-month intensive accelerator program that has supported companies such as ItsByU (DIY flower kits for weddings), MakerBloks (STEM toys), and Revolar (wearable safety devices). Asian department store chain Lane Crawford launched an initiative to support emerging designer labels in apparel, accessories, footwear, lifestyle, or home goods, with the winners getting space in the company’s stores and in its advertising.
- Fashion and footwear labels. Perry Ellis International teamed with LAB Ventures for Pitch to PERY, which seeks start-ups that can revolutionize fashion, retail, or e-commerce. And Nike + Techstars solicits companies that have ideas for products and services incorporating Nike+ technology for health and activity applications.
- Food brands. Chobani launched an incubator to support food entrepreneurs, offering an investment, workspace, and other support in a six-month program, as well as the opportunity to pitch to retailers and food distributors.
For a look at how one accelerator program works, read our detailed story about the OneTeam Collective, which held its second annual Pitch Day the week before the Super Bowl in early February.