Tech start ups: putting money where your mouth is

Start-ups' technology can give a firm a competitive edge. Does this mean companies should fund new ventures themselves?

Inside the Enterprise: John Lewis is known for its customer service, its Middle England appeal, and its slogan, "never knowingly undersold". It is perhaps less well known as a hive of technology innovation.

That, though, is slightly unfair. Despite the floor space given to haberdashery, or old-school favourites such as Brasso (is John Lewis the only place that now sells it?) the retailer is, in some ways, quite cutting edge.

The company's IT director is Paul Coby, former CIO of British Airways. Coby has largely been responsible for driving through the company's "multi-channel" retail strategy for the department stores, as well as updating IT for grocery chain Waitrose, to allow online shopping. In this, Coby has the backing of John Lewis' MD, Andy Street.

Its investment, initially at least, is modest. But if a modest investment in a technology can help to realise an idea, it may be something that other firms, in other industries, could try too.

But, if the company's efforts so far have been understated in a rather British kind of way a modest app, click to ordering, and free in-store Wi-Fi its latest idea has more West Coast flare.

Next month, the company launches JLAB, a start-up incubator. Focused on retail technology, the company will invest 12,500 in new ventures and provide both mentoring and office space.

Start-ups will be able to access John Lewis' existing technology back end, and one company will go on to receive an investment of up to 100,000, and the chance to deploy their solution across John Lewis' business. In return for the seed funding, John Lewis will take a four per cent stake in the firms it backs.

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