Intel China's GrowthX Accelerator, Apple Touchscreens & China Trends with Kapil Kane


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On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Kapil Kane, Director of Innovation at Intel China, and Co-founder of the corporate accelerator GrowthX. Kapil and I talk about his journey from his early product development days at Apple working on the first touchscreen, to today where he runs Intel's award-winning accelerator. Let's get started.

Inside Outside Innovation is the podcast to help the new innovators navigate what's next. Each week, we'll give you a front row seat to what it takes to learn, grow, and thrive in today's world of accelerating change and uncertainty. Join us as we explore, engage, and experiment with the best and the brightest innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneering businesses. It's time to get started.

Interview Transcript with Kapil Kane, Director of Innovation at Intel China

Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger. And as always, we have another amazing guest. Today, we have Kapil Kane. He is the Director of Innovation at Intel China, and co-founder of the GrowthX Corporate Innovation Accelerator. Welcome to the show.

Kapil Kane: Thanks Brian. Glad to be here.

Brian Ardinger: You are calling in from Shanghai right now in the midst of a pandemic lockdown. Let's talk a little bit about your journey into the world of innovation.

Kapil Kane: I was doing my PhD at Stanford when I dropped out of the program to join Apple, to build the touchscreen. The very first task, I remember I was an intern at the time. And I was the very first engineer to actually make a drawing of the touch screen. Like a revision 0 0 1.

And my journey started from there. Although the touchscreen project failed. We had to hand it over to this other team, that was working on a secret project, which turned out to be the iPhone. But my last project at Apple was iPad. So, I came around full circle.

And then I left Apple and joined Intel to actually create a tablet version of Classmate PC, which was inspired by one laptop per child from MIT Media Lab, which is to create an affordable education computing device for the emerging market or for the less fortunate as it was envisioned. And then on, you know, I got into this role of Innovation Director at Intel China. And so that's my journey.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Tell us a little bit about how you got to China. And how you got to cofound this corporate innovation accelerator called GrowthX.

Kapil Kane: Coming to China was with Apple. This is when we were developing the very first Mac Book Air. And at the time, if some of you guys remember, it was called a Unibody. That means it was carved out of a solid block of metal. Whereas everything before that was sheet metal, and hundreds of parts joined together.

So, it was a completely new way of manufacturing a product. And so, we were designing the product as well as designing the manufacturing process at the same time. So, we thought it would be better to have some of the designers move to China so that we can do both designing product and process at the same time. And so, I volunteered. As a, so I was one of the first three product designers to move from Cupertino to China. And I've been here ever since.

Brian Ardinger: Let's fast forward to today, you're running this thing called GrowthX. How did the idea of a corporate innovation accelerator start and then give us some insight into what's going on with GrowthX?

Kapil Kane: Intel has this amazing culture of innovation. And it's something that I can think of it like the Google's 15% thing. Where we encourage our employees to spend a percentage of their time on things they believe is important for our future. And so, we have lots of this cool innovation that has been created in the labs.

And around 2005, that's when I took over the innovation at Intel China. We saw that there's lots of cool things happening in the labs, but we couldn't find those things being commercialized. Not lending into the market. When I took over this role, this role was created because until that point, there was lots of different efforts of innovation, like very vibrant culture. Even to the date, there's a very vibrant culture of innovation. And we thought we needed some streamlining.

And so that's when they created this position to streamline all the different innovation activities at Intel China. And we have around 10,000 people here in China. So, it's by no means small offsite operation. It's a pretty huge operation.

Brian Ardinger: Kind of a little bit different than a lot of companies. A lot of companies we hear about the fact that most of the core is not that innovative. And so, they created an accelerator kind of program. Or a lab to kickstart that. But where at Intel, it seems like the reverse it's like you had to kind of harness or extra harness some of the activity.

Kapil Kane: Exactly. And also, the concept of accelerator is, is quite different. Like if you look at the other corporates who are building accelerators, they are accelerating outside startups with the hope that they will get to know what they're doing. They may be able to acquire them or partner with them.

But for me, I didn't even know what an accelerator was when I took over this role. And in my very first week, I happened to be in a round table conference at American Chamber of Commerce. And the guy sitting next to me happened to be running China's very first startup accelerator, Chinaaccelerator. The guy, William Bao Bean. He's a legend in China.

And I just happened to ask him what he does. And he explained to me the concept of accelerator. And I thought, you know, maybe I can replicate this right inside of Intel because we are so much creativity. We just need to give them the tools to turn those cool innovations into viable businesses. And that's where the idea for accelerator came along.

And that was the, the birth of GrowthX, where we started up as accelerators. We pick the teams. We make them believe they are actual startups. We have the CEO, CTO, CMO, and we bring them in a batch of cohort. And we have business sprints. We have around eight sprints focusing on different aspects of business. We have mentors.

We have entrepreneurs in residence. And we run this outside of Intel from a coworking space. So, it's just like any startup accelerator. Just the thing is that all the startups are internal projects. And we've been running this for six years now.

Brian Ardinger: Let's talk a little bit about some of the differences or similarities that you've seen between entrepreneurs in the outside versus intrepreneurship. And are there key skillsets, mindsets, tool sets that are similar or different.

Kapil Kane: I think what we are seeing, and it may be different for different companies. For us, most of those innovators will come to our accelerator. They are techies. You know, they get very excited about the technology. And they have no real background in business. So, we spend a lot of time and effort to make them understand that it's not about, can you build it, but should you build it? That's where we focused on changing their mindset.

If we change their mindset, like, you know, typically they're of this mindset that I will build something, then I will show it to the customers. Or they think that customers won't even look at us. If I don't have some finished product to show to them. And this is where we turn it on its head and tell them that you don't need anything. You just need a sketch. You need a questionnaire. And you're not trying to sell something. You're trying to understand the challenges.

So, think of it that way as you engage with your potential customers is don't be ashamed or embarrassed, that you're not in the show. You are simply, think of it as if you're co-designing with them. Or trying to collectively solve the challenges.

So that's the biggest challenge we have. I think technically they're amazing, is this business mindset that we're trying to cultivate. Not just business mindset. The, the lean startup kind of a methodology, you know, is like build, measure, learn, do an MVP. Test it. Learn, iterate. So that's one big change.

I say, because like outside entrepreneurs, founders, I see they're more, I mean, again, you know, there's all flavors of entrepreneurs. But our guys are always very tech focused, and they don't understand about the fundraising and stuff. Although I have seen they're very, very good at tapping into the resources to move their ideas forward.

And even to the point that they sometimes feel like getting into our accelerator, and doing all the sprints is like homework, just to get to the seed money, seed funding, to build something. But in their head, they are still, you know, that's what they want. But they have to go through all the motions of the accelerator as something like, you know, they had to do in order to move their idea forward.

So, I still believe that's entrepreneurship, but it's in a different way. Because they still want to move their ideas forward. Right. So, I used to really get frustrated in the beginning. But now I think, you know, in the end, their goal is the same. It's just, they have a different idea of how to get to the goal.

Brian Ardinger: Can you talk a little bit about how you go about identifying which people or companies, so to speak, to get into the accelerator? What's your evaluation process to identify who might be successful at this?

Kapil Kane: So, I think that's a very good question. And it took us some time to figure it out. There are a few things. The ideas, they aligned strategically to where Intel wants to go. That's one thing. Second thing we also realized is we are good at accelerating adjacent innovations. That means building something on top of something that exists, rather than this breakthrough moonshots.

There are two reasons. Just because we are in China and our employees, they interact a lot with our customers who are based in China, right? Like all the electronics are made in China. So typically, they come up, their innovation ideas are about how can we empower our customers. They're more customer centric. They're more something that, you know, hey, we have this product. If we tweak it this way, I can open up a completely new market segment, which can bring us millions of dollars. Rather than saying, hey, let's invent a new chip. Or let's invent a completely new manufacturing process. So that's the second thing.

The third thing we look at is like a founder accelerator fit is, are these guys coachable? And can we really help them in the short period of time of like four months. And the way we do that is before we do the intake, into the accelerator, we have only five slots per batch. And we do two batches a year. And we get anywhere from 30 to 60 applications. And we'll shortlist of about 15 to 20 and bring those teams into the bootcamp.

And during the bootcamp, we help them build their business case. And help pitch their business case in a very short time. And during this bootcamp, we also challenge our founders to go, and actually talk to the customers. Make cold calls. Or do a survey, right. And that tells us if these guys are really willing to get out of the building or not.

And we also see if they've incorporated the advice from the coaches into their final pitch or not. So, we also make our evaluation based on that. So, it's like, you know, the kind of innovation. The strategic fit to Intel and the founder accelerator fit as well.

Brian Ardinger: Are only teams coming into the accelerator or do they have to have a team, or can an individual founder apply?

Kapil Kane: Individuals can come in, but once they get into the accelerator on the very first sprint, their assignment is to resource their team with, you know, CEO, CTO, and CMO at the minimum.

Brian Ardinger: And that allows them to have enough people to actually run experiments and create something to move it forward.

Kapil Kane: Yeah. And also, the skill, you know, because typically like I said, if a founder is a very bright technologists, he may not really understand everything on the business side. So, we encourage them to get people from the sales and marketing groups to join in.

And we also give them enough budget to hire interns and MBA intern for example, to act as a CMO. And also, you know to hire tech talents as well for that short period of time to work on their ideas, so that they can focus on the business side of the things.

Brian Ardinger: So, I'd like to talk a little bit about the balance between this inside innovation versus outside innovation. So, companies that come through GrowthX are they expected potentially to spin out into a startup outside of the company? Are they been brought back in these technologies? Talk a little bit about this inside outside balance.

Kapil Kane: So, 90% of the companies are inside. We have only been able to spin out one company so far. After activating around 60. Okay. So very, very small ratio. So mostly you can think of them as internal teams coming to the accelerator to de-risk their business plans, to bring back to the business units.

Having said that we have accelerated external startups as well. And by that it's not to invest and take an equity in them. But to work with them on identifying a business opportunity for Intel and going to market together.

So basically, startups who are building on top of our core technologists, who are working in a field that we are never been to. So, this is a way we could test the market at the same time. We can help the startups as well by providing them with the technology, all our resources and jointly see if we can and like, you know, break new grounds together. So, we have done that, and we had some successes there. But our main focus is accelerating internal innovations and trying to line them into the market.

Brian Ardinger: That brings up a great question that is always asked, especially in the corporate environment, is like, how do you measure success? Because a lot of times corporates have a different way to measure outcomes because they're working with existing business models, existing optimization. Versus in a startup environment where a lot of it is unknown. So how do you go about measuring success?

Kapil Kane: The two ways we measure success. One is the business impact. That means what's the real revenue created from the projects that we accelerated. So, these are direct like revenue numbers. This is X million dollars created from this project. Second is the revenue potential that those projects create. So that's on the business side of things.

The second way we measure it is people impact. Impact on people. How we are helping people grow. And we actually ran a study where we tracked the people who went to our accelerators for two years. And we saw that on an average, we have anywhere from 1.5 to 6 times accelerated career growth for the people who have gone through the accelerator.

So, it could mean two things. There is no causation, right? There's a correlation. It could be one thing that are we are attracting good people. Our second could be that we are upscaling people. Which is both good because we know like if we had to do something really cool and innovative, we know who these people to count on. Right. And the second thing is it's good to upskill people. So those are the two ways we measure our success.

Brian Ardinger: And I think a lot of corporates have a tough time finding those curious restless entrepreneurs within their own companies. And this might be a great way to help figure that out. Obviously, a lot of startups don't make it. You know, the number of ideas that you think are going to make it, there's a large portion that fall by the wayside. How do you deal with failure? Or what happens to the teams and that, that don't get to where they were hoping to get at the very beginning?

Kapil Kane: That's the win-win part of intrepreneurship versus entrepreneurship. When you are an entrepreneur, you have your day job. Your paycheck. No matter what you do, but the payoff is also limited. Right? I think one of the great things about intrepreneurship and especially, let's say for the GrowthX are those who are not successful, they simply go back to what they were doing before. But if they are successful also, they typically go back to a day job. They will hand it over to the business units to take it forward.

So, for them, their goal is to come up with new ideas and bring those new ideas to the market. So that's the kind of people we have. We have people who have been through our accelerator three times, four times. And try to bring lots of ideas to the market. Some people have maybe succeeded once in three times. Some people have multiple projects that have been successful. But the trend we have seen is people coming in. Getting their idea to the next level. Going back, coming up with more ideas.

Brian Ardinger: Awesome. So, you've been in the trenches in Asia, looking at kind of what's hot. What's next? What are some of the trends that you're seeing that you're excited about?

Kapil Kane: Oh, man. I'm not really like a trend kind of a guy. But I see a lot of noise in metaverse. I see, you know, like this digital transformation is also pretty big here because there are lots of SOEs here who are trying to digitalize. Retail, new retail is a huge buzz in China. So, those are kind of the buzz things.

There's also like a lot of deep technology initiatives in China, especially zero carbon. Space tech is also picking up. Yeah. So, I'm excited more about like a long-term sustainable things. Rather than the short term, shiny things. The bigger problems.

They are the bigger problems. You know, but I think the China is definitely taking the long-term approach, right. With their five-year plans. With the policies, aligning the whole industry in that direction. Some of them may fail. Some of them will succeed. But at least we see like a huge effort going in those directions.

Like for example, in the past five-year plan, it was AI, Smart Manufacturing. Right. Also, there's this thing about the Smart Cities was also part of the last five-year plan. There was something called Common Prosperity. So, they want to make the second tier, third tier cities also prosperous. But I think the biggest thing, if you want to just think about China for the long run is the Sustainability, Carbon Zero and Space. Maybe even Quantum Computing. They are really going into this steep tech, rather than cute tech.

Brian Ardinger: The great way to explain it. Cute tech. Well, Kapil I want to thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation and sharing your insights and your expertise. Really do appreciate your time. If people want to find out more about yourself or about GrowthX, what's the best way to do that?

Kapil Kane: I think the best way to reach me is on LinkedIn. I mean, LinkedIn used to be open in China until it was blocked a few months ago. So, if you guys want to reach out, best place is LinkedIn.

Brian Ardinger: Excellent. Well, thanks again for coming on the show. Really appreciate the time and looking forward to staying connected and stay safe out there.

Kapil Kane: Thanks. And thanks for having me on the show, Brian.

Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.


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