Season 02, Episode 05

S.02 / E.05

Jennifer Gaze Director, High Alpha Innovation

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Jen is a Director at High Alpha Innovation, where she partners with the world's leading organizations to launch new ventures and build venture studios. Prior to High Alpha, she led innovation teams at Wilson Sonsini and Mercedes-Benz and advised leading corporations on issues of strategy and growth at Innosight, a consulting firm founded by HBS Professor Clay Christensen.

She also serves as a startup advisor and investor, with a focus on female-led ventures. Jen earned an honors BA from Boston College in Communications, and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. In her free time, Jen loves exploring trails and beaches in the Bay Area with her husband, daughter and dog.

 
Anyone can benefit from their astronomical growth. And similarly, the profile of founders is now changing. So what's really interesting is that founders from underrepresented backgrounds often focus on markets that traditional investors would consider to be niche markets. But instead of describing it as a niche market, I would describe it as a huge underserved growth market.
Jennifer Gaze : Director / High Alpha Innovation

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Transcript

Wilma Lam,

Host:

Hi, everyone! Welcome back to Optimistic Design, a podcast where we take a practical positive look at the future of design, ethical innovation, and technology. I'm your host, Wilma Lam, Design Strategy Director at Substantial.

Today I'm excited to welcome Jen Gaze. Jen is a director at High Alpha Innovation, where she partners with global leading organizations to launch new ventures and build venture studios.

Prior to High Alpha, she led innovation teams at Wilson Sonsini and Mercedes Benz and advised leading corporations on issues of strategy and growth at the consulting firm on Innosight. She also serves as a startup advisor and investor with a focus on female-led ventures.

Hi, Jen! Welcome, and thank you for joining me.

Jennifer Gaze:

Hey, Wilma. Thanks for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah, we're really excited to have you with us. One of the things I think is so interesting about your background is that you've been in multiple roles at this intersection of innovation and technology. Could you share a little bit more about how you got started in this field?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, I was very, very fortunate to land at a super interesting company right out of undergrad. My first job was at Innosight. There is an innovation strategy consulting firm founded by the late Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen. He's the godfather of disruptive innovation, so he really developed the theory around disruptive innovation and how innovation can impact markets.

That was a really meaningful and powerful education for me to learn about how business and markets work. But more fundamentally, there, I learned about the concept of jobs to be done, which is essentially a way to understand people and the problems that they're trying to solve.

And then ultimately, using that jobs to be done as a foundation for new ideas for innovation and building businesses. Once you kind of learned this framework around jobs to be done, you see the world in a different way. You really can't unsee it. And that also is very foundational to user-centered design and design thinking, which is, you know, very much focused on people and helping them solve problems in their lives.

Getting down to the core of those challenges has been really a common thread in all the work that I've done at Innosight and since then.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

You shared how formative that experience at Innosight was. I'm also curious. You've had other roles since then. Can you talk a little bit about who or what has influenced how you approach design innovation? How has that sort of been shaped over time quite a bit more?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, absolutely. I often try to look outside of the business world for inspiration. When you're in it all day, every day, either as a consultant or in innovation strategy at a big corporate, it can be all-consuming. You're always thinking about how we can fix things or improve.

So, I like to give my brain a little bit of a break and look at the art world look at what's happening in fashion, music, and in the food industry. That whole space of creativity and art of creation is very inspiring to me.

I'm always impressed by people who can kind of go from zero to one and just create something beautiful and meaningful from nothing. And that's really what entrepreneurship is also about, right? You have an idea, a spark of inspiration, and a desire to change the world. You can go build it, you know. There's definitely a common thread there.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah, I think this idea of cross-disciplinary learning and the intersections of multiple fields, I think, is very ripe for kind of extracting new innovative ideas. It's really interesting that you brought that up, and I'm sure we'll dig into that more in a later conversation. But I'd love to like hear a little bit more just about what led you to High Alpha Innovation and what your role is there now.


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah. High Alpha Innovation was started by a former colleague from Innosight, Elliot Parker, just two years ago. He worked at a venture studio called High Alpha, which was started by executives who sold their company's exact target to Salesforce a few years ago.

They decided to create a venture studio to help support and scale entrepreneurs in the b2b SaaS space. As they were building this company, they got a lot of inbound requests from corporate and universities who said, "Hey, we had this idea for a spin-out, or we're thinking about maybe launching a company. Can you help us do that?

They didn't have really any capacity or skills to really work with these partners in a meaningful way. But as this demand grew over time, it was clear that there was a business opportunity here. So Elliot, then founded High Alpha Innovation two years ago, and called me, told me about the model. I was super excited about it. I joined as employee number four. Now, we're almost 50 already in two years, which has been a wild ride.

But essentially, we are kind of the group that really focuses on partnering with corporate and universities on launching startups. That's our model and our bread and butter. And beyond that, we help them create venture studios within their orgs so that they can accelerate innovation as well.

At High Alpha Innovation, my role is a director. It's basically a startup, so of course, we wear many hats, everything from training to process development to business development. My main role is to really work directly with our partners and help them through the process of developing a thesis about a market, identifying problem spaces that they want to go after developing new ideas for solutions and businesses, and then ultimately, launching a startup to help address some of those pain points that we've uncovered together. So it's about a six-month process from start to finish.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

You've mentioned a few times in the conversation already that High Alpha uses a venture studio model. For those that are maybe less familiar with what this model involves, could you talk about what it means to work in this way and how you work in this way?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, absolutely. So the simple way to describe a venture studio is a structure or organization that invests and builds new companies. We're talking specifically about the venture space of venture bankable venture scalable models.

A lot of VCs have operated kind of as a venture studio, historically. They've just called it something different, like a platform team. But essentially, it's a group that helps come up with ideas and then actually stands up a company and hires an entrepreneur to launch the company. And then they also support that company with kind of the back-office functions. So finance, marketing, legal, HR.

And by providing that model of shared services, it really allows the founder and the founding team to purely focus on strategy, customer development, execution, getting the product, the MVP set up. You're kind of removing all the distractions and the administrative burdens that can weigh down a founding team, and especially a CEO, and really just optimizing and focusing their time on the things that really matter, to be able to grow that business and get it off the ground.

By providing that model of shared services, it really allows the founder and the founding team to purely focus on strategy, customer development, execution, getting the product, the MVP set up.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Thanks for sharing that. That definitely helps to bring more clarity to how the model works. One thing I'm also curious about is that you mentioned when High Alpha was first getting started, there was interest from the corporate side, also interest from universities. So, can you talk a little bit about what it meant to sort of establish the venture ecosystem that High Alpha Innovation is a part of?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, so we're fortunate in that we're able to connect directly with the High Alpha team and leverage the existing ecosystem that they've created as a venture studio. But essentially, we think about three main components, ideas, people, and capital. Right?

So ideas are really coming from, in our case, our partners, our corporate and university partners. Perhaps a university professor may have some IP that they're looking to commercialize, or a corporate partner has been working on a new software solution that they think could really serve the broader market.

We're having ideas come from multiple places. That's usually not the challenge. I think the biggest challenge is getting people, finding the right entrepreneurs who are capable and excited about these opportunities so that they can build and launch the new companies.

The third aspect is capital. High Alpha capital can be a funding partner. But typically, our corporate or university partners are putting the first money into these new companies.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Overall, also, I know there's also High Alpha Innovations' central mission, which is to partner with the world's leading organization of entrepreneurs to innovate through startup creation.

You talked a little bit about the model you use and the ecosystem, but maybe broader level. Can you also talk about that mission and what that goal means to you and your team?


Jennifer Gaze:

Our goal is to launch a hundred startups in five years. That's a pretty big goal. But I think that we're on our way to getting there. And here's how. So, if we work with partners in each project, maybe we'll launch one or two companies. And that's fantastic. But what we really want to do is create a capability for those partners. And that's the venture studio model.

If we're able to build venture studios with different universities or with different partners or focus on a specific market, like in healthcare, then we can really scale our model and allow companies and our partners to launch startups faster on a more predictable cadence using this model.

I think it's it's pretty ambitious but certainly an achievable goal. I'm also optimistic about the fact that there's so much opportunity to solve problems in the world. Our corporate and university partners are typically an expert in their markets or experts in a certain field, and they can spot the gaps.

They can see where the challenges are. They've done the competitive research for us and said, "Hey, I've been looking for a solution that does x, I don't see it. So let's build it." Right? That's where I'm really excited. I think that our big goal to launch so many companies is really achievable.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

And so, in the focus of kind of launching all these new companies, we're working with High Alpha innovation as sort of a an external partner, so as corporations, but in your previous roles with Wilson Sonsini and Mercedes Benz, you also have sat on the other side and kind of like a corporate innovation team. So you have experience on both sides of that. Could you talk more maybe from the corporate lens of what it means to define new venture creation?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, it's very complicated, for sure. I think having the foundational knowledge around disruptive innovation theory, as a result of working at Innosight, helps me think about how to approach innovation in these different contexts.

Innovation is typically not one size fits all. We often advise people to think about it as a portfolio approach. So, you have different types of innovation. And there are different tools that you can use to achieve those different types of innovation. So, you might consider three broad categories.

Incremental innovation, so that's improving existing products. Adjacent innovation, which might mean you're serving a new customer with your existing product, or you're serving an existing customer with a new product. And then there's the third category, which is disruptive or transformative innovation. And that's really the type of innovation that I believe is best served by the venture studio model. There are a lot of different ways to explore disruptive innovation, but the venture studio model takes the structure of driving this innovation outside the core business to allow it to succeed.

I think that's definitely a consideration for innovation teams is what kind of innovation are you pursuing—number one. And then, do you have the right tools in place to actually execute on them?


Wilma Lam,

Host:

On this idea of, do you have the right tools to execute on them? I imagine there's a huge difference between what those tools look like in a more typical startup model, where it's like a small team, less funding, but also a lot of decision making power compared to when you're working within a corporate ecosystem and a lot more stakeholders, potentially different kinds of fundings.

Could you also talk about additional considerations that you and your team bring in when you're talking to corporate partners about what it means to do venture building within a kind of corporate environment?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, absolutely. There's so much to learn from this model in kind of trying to pursue disruptive or transformative innovation. But what I've seen pretty consistently is that corps just desire to have a lot of power, influence, and control over everything that they do. And, of course, that's kind of expected because that's how they've been able to build a successful business and operate it at scale.

When it comes to building a new company, it's really important for the corporate to actually step back, have less influence, and even less ownership actually, of that new company, in order for it to grow and scale in the venture context, right. So, if the corporate wants to put too much of their control over that new company, no outside VC is going to want to touch that. Right. So ultimately, it limits the ability for that new company to have an impact on the market. Right? So if that's the case, then maybe it will be better for the corporate to focus more on incremental or adjacent innovation where maybe that's creating a new business or service line where they have 100% control, right?

You kind of have to make a choice. There are a lot of trade-offs in this space of, do you want to be rich, or do you want to be king? What's more important to the corporate? And that's often related to what's the strategic objective? What are they really trying to achieve? Any event exploring this new type of innovation?


Wilma Lam,

Host:

So let's say hypothetically, and we've definitely found this to be true in organizations that we've spoken to and worked with. There is a strong desire to do disruptive innovation, things that are going to truly change the future of a business or an organization.

I think the question is always, well, what actual actionable steps should organizational leaders be taking in order to promote corporate, creative innovation? Especially focused in this disruptive space? So, you mentioned this idea of taking a step back and creating more space for autonomy. Are there any specific steps that you've seen organizations do that were especially effective?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, I think there are a couple of considerations. And that's, I think, not to toot our own horn. But I think the venture studio model really, really solves some of these challenges.

Number one, its corporate DNA is so so strong. At NSA, we call it the sucking sound of the core because there's such gravity and such a desire to bring new ideas back into the core business. But if you do that too soon, you could essentially kill it. Right? So, I think recognizing the power of that corporate DNA and then ultimately structuring the new entity or structuring the team to sit outside the core business in a meaningful way, so there's not that desire to kind of pull it back in. So, that's one thing.

Dedicated resources are also critically important. Usually, when businesses create lots of money for innovation, innovation teams doing lots of different things. As soon as there's a shift in the market or a concern about profitability, the innovation budget is the first thing to get cut. But that's kind of counter to the thinking that while innovation is something you should invest in all the time, right, because you're actually building for the future.

Dedicated resources are also critically important. Usually, when businesses create lots of money for innovation, innovation teams doing lots of different things. As soon as there's a shift in the market or a concern about profitability, the innovation budget is the first thing to get cut. But that's kind of counter to the thinking that while innovation is something you should invest in all the time because you're actually building for the future.

You're placing a bet today that will materialize maybe in a few years, right. So, having dedicated resources allows innovation to be kind of an ongoing R&D function for the org rather than it being more episodic and kind of dependent on the current state of the business. So, dedicated resources are really important.

And then the third thing to consider is around aligned incentives. That means the teams who are actually executing on this innovation or building the new ideas or building the new businesses should not only be separate, should not only have their own dedicated resources but the incentives should be aligned to promote that innovation.

They shouldn't be measured by whether they're able to create a profitable solution within six months. They should be incentivized around how quickly they are moving and how quickly they are learning about a new space so that they can really be empowered to take risks, to try new things, and experiment in these new spaces.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Those are really helpful specific, actionable steps. I think one thing I'd like to follow up on, I think, especially with the later three ideas of how to have some level of separation with the new entity and also dedicated resources and to align incentives, is early on, at least in my experience, working with organizations trying to do something like this.

And when I was corporate side, there was always this early question of, should this venture be built internally to the main organization or as a totally separate external initiative with a separate funding, separate leadership? How do you think about considering the benefits and drawbacks of each of those approaches?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, it's a tough question, and one we get on almost every project is, you know, should we do this internally? How could we do this internally? There's always that desire for control. There's usually no 100% correct answer, but a lot of maybe considerations for people to think through as they're making that choice, a really important consideration is how much is really known about the space?

We're really focusing on pure execution. So, is it a predictable market in terms of how the customer will behave? We kind of can have a sense of what the profitability of that model might look like? Or do we have absolutely no clue? Is this a new business that's never existed in the world before? Is it something that's serving a new customer that we're not familiar with? Are we leveraging new technology and are not sure what the adoption might look like?

If there are a lot of questions around the pathway, the model, and the business, then it's really about learning. Right? So, in that case, it's better to have an external team. That's when an external [new co 00:21:14] approach may make more sense, right?

So, if you can build a spreadsheet, the outcome is relatively predictable. It's kind of more known and comfortable with the core business. That's probably better suited to be an internal entity or business. If speed is more important, if there are a lot of unknowns, typically, that's more suited to be an external, a new company.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Thanks for sharing that. It's definitely true. It's one of the first steps out of the gate that's always discussed when working on the corporate side. Or like, "Oh, we want to drive disruptive innovation. Should that sit in-house? Or should that be a separate group? How are we going to do that?"

I've asked you quite a bit about the structure of your organization and the team. But I'd love to also dig into maybe your personal approach and how you work with teams and lead teams. You have a hybrid background that's across strategy, business innovation, lean startup, and user-centered design. It would be really helpful just to understand how this shaped your approach to partnering with venture teams?


Jennifer Gaze:

The innovation space is really fun because there are a lot of different kinds of people that find themselves in this space from a lot of different backgrounds. I always find that just meeting these folks and learning from them is really special because we're kind of like a small community.

But I think that is also why we're able to come up with new ideas and pursue these new markets because everyone's bringing a unique perspective to the table. They're coming with different life experiences, different work experiences, and, you know, have a different approach to problem-solving. And that's, I think, where innovation can really happen.

Everyone's bringing a unique perspective to the table. They come with different life experiences, different work experiences, and different approaches to problem-solving. That's, I think, where innovation can really happen.

I think just kind of finding those people that have those diverse backgrounds that are excited about innovation and optimistic about the future has been kind of what really has kept me in this space. It's always about learning and growing, and connecting with different minds.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

When you're connecting with partners and forming teams, can you also talk about what skill sets I think that you've personally cultivated that are most important for the work that you're now currently doing?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, I think number one is comfort with ambiguity. There is so much unknown about the work that we do that it's important to be comfortable with not knowing, right? To be comfortable thinking about how markets might change in the future and developing a hypothesis on how we might impact that future.

There is so much unknown about the work that we do that it's important to be comfortable with not knowing. To be comfortable thinking about how markets might change in the future and developing a hypothesis on how we might impact that future. I think that is really important.

I think that is really, really important. I found that I'm comfortable with that ambiguity. I'm also energized by it because, again, going back to the zero to one, you're starting something from scratch. You're really starting from a blank canvas. And that's super appealing to me.

I think also being adaptable, right? So being okay with being wrong. We come into these projects with a hypothesis about what a new business could look like. We're often proven wrong. And that's kind of the point. That's part of our work.

We want to know where we're wrong and where we're right. We're actually building a solution that serves the market. I think that's a great perspective that we bring to the table where maybe a researcher has been working in a field for 20 years, and they're really attached to their work and their research, for a good reason.

That doesn't always mean that it's a commercially viable solution. Right? So we have to kind of bring that practical mindset and say, "Okay, this is a great IP or great technology, but is it really going to serve the market need?" Right? That's kind of the work that we do with them?


Wilma Lam,

Host:

No, it's really valuable advice. I definitely found it to be true in the work that I'm doing as well. That comfort with ambiguity is key because you walk into these spaces really having no idea once you go into research, or once you've launched a pilot, exactly what the outcomes could be. And being open to the fact that all come may be totally different than what the team had originally anticipated. And that that's a good thing.


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, that is almost always the case. Yeah.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

We talked about a couple of different categories of things today. We talk about innovation, both corporate side and venture, but also this idea of how do you incubate new ideas. And then, you also have this background in user-centered design. And so, I'm also curious, you know, from your point of view, because I think sometimes it's a little bit different for everyone. But how do you see the relationship between incubation, innovation, and design?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, it's almost like a Holy Trinity. They all complement each other. At the core of everything, it just goes back to the customer and the job to be done. Who are we serving? What problem are we solving? And then the design is the way that you solve it.

You can be designing software solutions, hardware, and technology. You can design the business model, but that's all kind of wrapping around that problem, right? And then the incubation is, how do we actually bring it to life? Right? What's the MVP? What is the starting point?

The smallest way that we can begin to solve this problem is to get traction and actually build the solution over time. So, they're all super interconnected and very dynamic, right? This process is certainly not linear, right? You're kind of always testing, learning, and adapting. So, it's pretty symbiotic, I should say.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

I mean, you've shared a lot of really helpful frameworks and ways of thinking about this kind of work today. If you were to distill it down into maybe one or two nuggets of advice to give to individuals that are trying to grow innovation, I think, especially in large organizations, are there any other resources or tools that you think are especially useful to people getting started in this kind of space?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, I think understanding the user-centered design approach is just so foundational, so I would certainly start there. But beyond that, to be able to have an impact, especially in a corporate environment, you need to have leadership buy-in, right?

You can't innovate in a vacuum, and I think finding the senior leaders, whether that's a VP, someone in the C-suite, ideally the CEO, right, who actually buys into the approach, who believes in it, who wants to support it, invest in it, set aside the separate resources, right?

You can't innovate in a vacuum. Finding those champions within the organization is so critically important. And basically, innovation will live or die by those folks. Finding those folks aligning with them and being part of their team is a great way to actually move the needle and get things done.

Experiment. I think finding those champions within the organization is so critically important. And basically, innovation will live or die by those folks. So, I think finding those folks aligning with them and being part of their team is a great way to actually move the needle and get things done.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Yeah, that's great advice. I think this idea of having a champion to really fight for an idea, give you resources, and also just support you through the whole process because innovation was super fun. It can be hard to get through it.

It's been incredibly helpful to get a chance to talk to you about the journey you've been on, everything you've learned. And as always, on this show, we like to end with this question of what is top of mind now, as you think about the future of design and innovation? Like, what are you optimistic about based on what you're doing?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, so much. I'm optimistic about so much. I think I've been really inspired by a lot of the shifts that appear to be happening and trending towards a more inclusive ecosystem. I'm sure you've seen the numbers around underrepresented groups and founding teams within the investment community. But that's all changing. The profile of investors is changing, and VCs are also getting disrupted with platforms like AngelList and Republic.

Anyone can be an investor in a unicorn now, right? Anyone can benefit from their astronomical growth. And similarly, the profile of founders is now changing. So what's really interesting is that founders from underrepresented backgrounds often focus on markets that traditional investors would consider to be niche markets. But instead of describing it as a niche market, I would describe it as a huge underserved growth market.

For example, there's a woman who launched a business serving other women who are going through menopause. That was considered by traditional investors to be a niche market. But in reality, half of the population goes through menopause, right? Every single woman goes through this journey. So, is it really a niche market? No, it's actually just an underserved market. And there are many, many different examples like this, whether that's, you know, skincare for people with different skin tones.

Or even one of our SLM alums, I saw Stefan Bauer is starting a company to serve people with learning disabilities in their educational journey. So I'm really excited to see a lot of these underserved markets now being served by Innovative founders and investors. So really excited to see where that goes. Ultimately, the end result is more problems solved for more people. That's really awesome to see.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

We've definitely seen a huge evolution. I mean, even the last maybe half-decade of the kind of venture capital organizations I've come up with and the kinds of founders that we've started to see have more opportunity in this space.

I mean, I think one of those core questions that you brought up it's like, well, who determines that something is a niche market? I think that's really changed who the stakeholders that get to decide that are. And yeah, women are a popular population to be considered a niche market.

I'm curious, when where you said, you know, with High Alpha Innovation, the partners that you have, are there any specific opportunities you see to build a more inclusive venture ecosystem?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, absolutely. I think what's really fantastic about the venture studio model is that it is a built-in ecosystem for an entrepreneur. Right? We had this hypothesis around immigrant founders.

A lot of the corporations or a lot of startups have been founded by immigrants who went through crazy red tape to be able to even function as an entrepreneur in the US. So, how can we help create a system that allows immigrant founders to be able to start their companies, right?

So, that was a venture studio idea that we had at High Alpha Innovation, and we're exploring called Resilient Ventures. So, that's one example. I would love to be able to start a venture studio solely focused on female founders, again, providing access to the services and the ecosystem to allow companies founded by women to really accelerate their growth and their journey in a way that they haven't had before. So, I think the model itself could really serve so many different populations. And that's really, hopefully, what I'll be doing in the future.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

Well, thank you so much for sharing today, Jen. I really appreciate all the insight that you brought and the great conversation. Is there anywhere that people can go to learn more about the work that you're doing if they want to understand it more?


Jennifer Gaze:

Yeah, absolutely. So our website, HighAlphaInno.com. We have a lot of great blog posts and articles about the venture studio model and the work that we do. So, we'd love for folks to go there, or also feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

That sounds great. And we'll make sure to also post those links with our show notes when this podcast goes live. And thank you, everyone out there, for listening. To follow along and hear more about the most recent releases of our show, head to Substantial.com/OptimisticDesign.

If you enjoyed today's episode, please subscribe to Optimistic Design, and leave a comment and join us next time as we continue to take a future focus look at design, ethical innovation, and technology. I'm Wilma Lam, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.


Jennifer Gaze:

All right. Thanks, Wilma.


Wilma Lam,

Host:

All right. Thank you so much, Jen.

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