Corporate Accelerator Programs. Supporting Startup Success by Fostering Entrepreneurial Networking

Master's Thesis, 2017

57 Pages, Grade: 1.0






2.1 The Potential and Liabilities of Entrepreneurial Ventures
2.2 The Emergence of Corporate Accelerator Programs
2.3 The Importance of Networks for Entrepreneurs
2.4 Entrepreneurial Networking

3.1 Research Approach
3.2 Case Selection and Data Source
3.3 Data Collection
3.4 Data Analysis and Structure

4.1 Networking Intentions within Corporate Accelerator Programs
4.1.1 Increased Visibility and Business Network Reach
4.1.2 Expert Knowledge and Business Support
4.1.3 Initiation of an Incumbent Firm Collaboration
4.2 Networking Mechanisms within Corporate Accelerator Programs
4.2.1 Pitch Events
4.2.2 Expert Mentoring
4.2.3 Referrals
4.2.4 Physical Proximity
4.3 The Impact of Corporate Accelerators on Entrepreneurial Networking
4.3.1 Bridging Function and Tie Formation Push
4.3.2 Efficient Match-Making
4.3.3 Enhanced Startup Legitimacy and Credibility

5.1 Why and how do startups network in corporate accelerator programs?
5.2 How do corporate accelerators impact entrepreneurial networking?
5.3 Theoretical Implications
5.4 Managerial Implications



Appendix A: Overview of Corporate Accelerator Programs
Appendix B: Startup Interview Guide
Appendix C: Corporate Interview Guide
Appendix D: Overview of Conducted Case Interviews


Title: Corporate Accelerator Programs: Supporting Startup Success by Fostering Entrepreneurial Networking

Author: Vanessa Ostertag

Recent years have seen the rapid emergence of a new format of corporate-startup engagement: the corporate accelerator program. This format aims to support early-stage ventures to overcome their initial challenges, while fostering corporate innovation within established firms. Extant literature has emphasized the importance of networking for entrepreneurs to increase their chances of survival. Accordingly, networking opportunities constitute a major reason for startups to join an accelerator. To date, research on corporate accelerators has remained scarce and left it unclear how networking happens in this context. This thesis sheds light upon why and how startups network within corresponding programs and explores the implications of corporate accelerators on entrepreneurial networking. An inductive, multiple case study of six startups that graduated from different programs in Germany was performed. The results revealed four mechanisms that corporate accelerators provide to foster networking: pitch events, expert mentoring, referrals and physical proximity. These mechanisms were used differently given the participants’ stage of product development and prior network support. Interestingly, an initial exploratory study unveiled two distinct types of corporate accelerators: “innovation vehicle” and “investment vehicle” programs. The type of program appeared to shape the configuration of the four mechanisms and thus the opportunities and possible networking outcomes for participating startups. In general, corporate accelerator programs seem to increase intensity, efficiency and successfulness of startups’ network tie formation. This study enhances the theoretical understanding of corporate accelerators and contributes to the literature on entrepreneurial networking. It further provides valuable insights for program operators and potential startup participants.

Keywords: entrepreneurship; corporate accelerator programs; networks; entrepreneurial networking; corporate innovation


Título: Programas de Aceleração Corporativa: Apoiar o Sucesso de Startups promovendo o Networking de Empreendedores

Autor: Vanessa Ostertag

Os últimos anos trouxeram um novo formato de interação entre empresas e startups: o programa de aceleração corporativa. Este visa o apoio de startups, superarando as suas fraquezas, relacionadas com a sua recente implementação e tamanho, ao mesmo tempo que fomenta a inovação de empresas já estabelecidas. A literatura existente enfatiza a importância do networking no aumento das hipóteses de sobrevivência do empreendedor. Assim, as oportunidades de networking constituem um importante motivo para participação num acelerador. Os estudos atuais relativos a aceleradores corporativos são escassos, sendo pouco claro como se procede o networking neste cenário. Esta tese clarifica os motivos e formas como as startups iniciam novos contactos nestes programas e explora a maneira como os aceleradores corporativos afetam o networking de empreendedores. Foi realizado um estudo de caso com seis startups graduadas de diferentes programas que operam na Alemanha. Os resultados revelaram quatro mecanismos de networking fomentados pelos aceleradores, utilizados de forma diferente consoante o nível de desenvolvimento das startups participantes. Através de um estudo exploratório inicial, foram identificados dois tipos de aceleradores corporativos, com influência na forma como as oportunidades de networking surgiam: “veículos de inovação" e "veículos de investimento". No geral, os programas de aceleração corporativa mostraram aumentar a intensidade, eficiência e sucesso de networking das startups. Este estudo permite uma compreensão teórica de aceleradores corporativos, contribuindo para a literatura dentro do tema de networking de empreendedores. Além disso, fornece informação de relevo para operadores de programas e para potenciais participantes.

Palavras-chave: empreendedorismo; programas de aceleração corporativa; networks; networking de empreendedores; inovação corporativa


I would like to start by thanking all study participants who dedicated their valuable time to speak with me about their experiences and views on corporate accelerator programs. I could not have realized this study without their good will and I am overly grateful for their open, sharing attitudes.

Moreover, I would like to recognize my supervisor, Cláudia Costa, for her feedback and motivation along the way and for agreeing to independently supervise my thesis.

A sincere thank you also goes to my parents and friends who constantly supported me along the way. Especially without the tremendous emotional support and advice from my dear Marvin, I could not have finished this thesis in the same way. Thank you for your incredible patience, understanding and the many times of cheering me up. A big thank you further goes to Magali, for always being there and offering her help even though having so much work to do herself. Finally, I would like to thank my flatmates for the joint, encouraging coffee breaks and especially Anja for her final editing work.



Figure 1: The Entrepreneurial Networking Context

Figure 2: Data Structure

Figure 3: Conceptual Model: Entrepreneurial Networking in Corporate Accelerators


Table 1: Overview of Research Approach

Table 2: Comparison of Corporate Accelerator Types

Table 3: Overview of Case Startups



Recently founded small venture, typically disposing of a low start-up capital, which tries to realize a comparably innovative business idea. A startup is often tech-oriented and designed to scale very quickly. To expand its business and strengthen its capital base, it generally relies on venture capital or business angels.

Early-stage startup

A startup that is officially launched and finds itself within an early stage of the startup lifecycle in which it seeks capital to invest in product development, building a team of employees, fine-tuning their go-to-market strategy and building out sales channels.

Minimum viable product

First launched version of a product, which is limited to core functionality but sufficient to generate first revenues.

Convertible note

Early-stage investment in the form of a loan that is given to a startup. This loan automatically converts into equity at a specific milestone (when the firm valuation is more accurate) or as soon as a later stage investor purchases equity in the respective startup.


Today’s globalized economy is characterized by intense competition and rapid change. The ability to create disruptive innovations has thereby turned into a key requirement for organizations to successfully compete and survive (Weiblen and Chesbrough, 2015). Startups increasingly play a major role in the constant strive for innovation (Kohler, 2016; Weiblen and Chesbrough, 2015). Examples of successful ventures such as Whatsapp, Airbnb or Tesla have shown that startups are able to rapidly disrupt entire industries and can hence constitute a serious threat for established players (Kuratko, 2009). Acknowledging this fact and the high innovation potential of startups, an increased willingness of large firms to approach and collaborate with these young ventures is becoming observable (Moschner and Herstatt, 2016). According to GE’s Global Innovation Barometer, in 2014 already 85% of corporate executives stated that collaborations with startups will drive future innovation and firm success (GE, 2014).

Despite startups’ potential to innovate and outperform established players, more than 50% of newly founded startups typically fail within their first years of operation (Santarelli and Vivarelli, 2007; Van Praag, 2003). Survival is thereby mainly endangered by the initial lack of business knowledge, financial resources, visibility and legitimacy (Baum et al., 2010). Through a new format of corporate-startup engagement, the corporate accelerator program, established firms have recently realized the opportunity to approach startups as a valuable source of innovation by offering program participants substantial support in their challenging early stages. This support is aimed to increase startups’ chances of survival and to accelerate their growth (Kohler, 2016; Pauwels et al., 2016). It typically includes business education, initial funding, mentoring and networking opportunities for a batch of startups during a limited period (Cohen and Hochberg, 2014). Within the last years, the number of corporate accelerators has rapidly increased and the format gained traction globally and across industries (Kohler, 2016).

Due to their recent emergence, research on corporate accelerators remains scarce and has, so far, mainly focused on corporate intentions. The perspective of participating startups and their use of the programs’ provided opportunities are still not well understood (Cohen and Hochberg, 2014). Extant literature has emphasized the importance for entrepreneurs to build up a valuable network that can help them obtain necessary resources to overcome the initial venture challenges (Birley, 1985; Dubini and Aldrich, 1991; Hite and Hesterly, 2001). Likewise, networking has been stated as a crucial component and a major reason for startups to join an accelerator (Cohen, 2013). Despite its importance, it is still unclear how networking happens in the corporate accelerator setting and which role these programs play in enabling and fostering network development of new ventures. The aim of this thesis is to create an understanding of entrepreneurial networking in corporate accelerators by exploring startups’ intentions and activities to initiate new contacts and the implications of corresponding programs on their networking activities. The specific objective of the study is to provide an empirical answer to the following research questions:

Q1: Why do startups intend to network within corporate accelerator programs?
Q2: How does networking take place within corporate accelerator programs?
Q3: How do corporate accelerator programs impact entrepreneurial networking?

To approach these research questions, an inductive multiple case study was conducted among startup graduates of different corporate accelerators in Germany. The sample selection thereby reflected the initial finding of two distinct types of corporate accelerators, which were identified within an exploratory study. Primary data from semi-structured, in-depth interviews was organized around emerging concepts and themes from a cross-case analysis and was further enlarged by various sources of secondary data. The study not only enlarges the theoretical understanding of corporate accelerator programs and corresponding startup activities but also follows the suggestion to study entrepreneurial networking in specific contexts to reveal distinct ways in which entrepreneurs interact with their social environment (Jack and Anderson, 2002; Klyver and Foley, 2012). Its findings are of particular interest and provide valuable practical guidance for established firms, which operate a corporate accelerator or consider launching one, and for startups that think about joining a corresponding program.

The remainder of the thesis is structured as follows: Chapter 2 reviews the relevant literature on corporate accelerators and entrepreneurial networking to build a theoretical base for the study. Chapter 3 presents the methodology, which was applied to collect and analyze the data. In Chapter 4, the empirical findings are outlined, whose meanings are discussed in relation to extant literature in Chapter 5. Finally, after addressing theoretical and managerial implications, Chapter 6 points out the study’s limitations and suggests directions for future research.


This chapter portrays initial challenges of entrepreneurial ventures and introduces the concept of corporate accelerator programs. It demonstrates the importance of networks for entrepreneurs, presents different approaches for new tie formation and discusses the potential of corporate accelerators to foster entrepreneurial networking.

2.1 The Potential and Liabilities of Entrepreneurial Ventures

As outlined above, the ability to create disruptive innovations is of high importance to successfully compete and survive in today’s rapidly changing economy (Weiblen and Chesbrough, 2015). In this context, startups significantly contribute to economic development (Kuratko, 2009) by applying emerging technologies to new products and by reinventing business models (Kohler, 2016; Weiblen and Chesbrough, 2015). As a driving force for innovation, entrepreneurs are thereby said to introduce the “new” into existing business operations by breaking with established routines (Santarelli and Vivarelli, 2007). Compared to large firms, startups show higher business agility, creativity and pace of operation as well as an increased willingness to take risks, which jointly result in a higher level of innovativeness (Weiblen and Chesbrough, 2015). Finally, young firms have leaner structures, which make them better placed to respond faster to changing environments (Aldrich and Auster, 1986). Even though larger firms are increasingly trying to learn about and incorporate certain startup principles and techniques (Moschner and Herstatt, 2016), their size and age often result in rigid structures, internal inertia as well as external dependencies, which make it hard to change prevailing approaches and achieve similar results (Aldrich and Auster, 1986).

Although startups consequently dispose of an increased ability to innovate, research revealed that they suffer from high failure rates compared to established firms (Baum et al., 2000). The corresponding reasons have been attributed to their so-called liabilities of newness and smallness (Stinchcombe, 1965), which describe the challenges of young firms to overcome an initial lack of business knowledge, financial resources, visibility and legitimacy (Baum et al., 2010). These liabilities result in problems of attracting qualified personnel, raising venture capital and building up stable relations with customers, suppliers and business partners (Aldrich and Auster, 1986). Building on the complementarity of resources and strengths of startups and established firms, corporate accelerator programs have emerged as a new format to bridge the corporate and startup world and to support new ventures in their challenging early stages.

2.2 The Emergence of Corporate Accelerator Programs

The concept of accelerator programs emerged in the mid-2000s with the first program, Y Combinator, being launched in Massachusetts in 2005 (Kohler, 2016). Two years later, Techstars – nowadays the second most successful accelerator after Y Combinator – started operating in Colorado (Hochberg, 2016). The aim of accelerator programs is to increase the success rates of new ventures and to accelerate their growth (Kohler, 2016; Pauwels et al., 2016). Therefore, accelerators typically provide cohorts of early-stage startups with initial seed funding, free co-working space and with educational, mentoring and networking opportunities for a limited time (Cohen and Hochberg, 2014; Kohler, 2016). The selection of startups for each program edition is cyclical and highly selective, with top accelerators’ acceptance rates of not more than 3% (Miller and Bound 2011). Selection typically starts with an open call period, followed by a standardized screening process in which the business idea and founding team are presented to the accelerator team and to external stakeholders (Pauwels et al., 2016). Accelerators can be generalist or industry specific and usually take a small percentage of equity, 5-8% on average, from their participants (Cohen and Hochberg, 2014). Finally, before “graduating” from the programs after approximately three months, startups pitch to a broader audience including the press and possible investors at a large-scale “demo-day” (Cohen and Hochberg, 2014).

In 2010, the U.S. company Citrix was among the first corporations to make use of the accelerator model with the aim to collaborate closer with startups and to foster corporate innovation (Kohler, 2016). Since then, the number of corporate accelerators has increased rapidly and, according to a recent report from Future Asia Ventures, there are currently more than 116 programs around the world (Desai, 2016). Thereby, the corporate accelerator trend has gained traction across various industries (Kohler, 2016). As a subtype of accelerator programs, corporate accelerators are similar to private programs in their structure (Hochberg, 2016) and usually operate within specific industries or fields linked to the incumbent firm as the provider and sponsor of the program (Moschner and Herstatt, 2016). When introducing a corporate accelerator, incumbent firms either decide to build the program on their own or to outsource main activities to an experienced private accelerator such as Techstars (Hochberg, 2016). The format of corporate accelerators differs significantly from former corporate-startup engagements, such as business incubators, corporate venturing or mergers and acquisitions (Kohler, 2016). Whereas business incubators host very early-stage startups and offer free working space and a limited level of supportive services for a longer period, an accelerator aims to rapidly develop a batch of selected startups through intense mentoring, networking and education sessions (Pauwels et al., 2016). Moreover, other than in incubators, the provided seed funding allows the ventures to work full-time on their ideas during the acceleration period (Wise and Valliere, 2014). Compared to corporate venturing and mergers and acquisitions, corporate accelerators focus on venture development instead of exclusively investing in them and allow incumbents to engage with a larger number of ventures at the same time (Kohler, 2016).

Cooperating rather than competing provides established firms with the possibility to foster their innovativeness while sheltering new ventures from their liabilities of newness and smallness (Aldrich and Auster, 1986). Following this rationale, the overall promise of an effective corporate accelerator lies in bridging the gap between these two worlds and promoting mutual benefits through the complementary nature of incumbents and startups (Kohler, 2016). Previous research has shown that corporate objectives related to operating an accelerator program are multifaceted. While some corporations try to identify promising new technologies and business models that they can help commercialize, others aim to create growth options by taking equity from participating startups (Dempwolf et al., 2014; Kohler, 2016). Moreover, incumbent firms have expressed the intention to increase their own pace of innovation and rejuvenate their corporate culture by learning about startups’ work principles and incorporating some of their agile techniques (Moschner and Herstatt, 2016).

Corporate accelerator programs are still a recent phenomenon and corresponding research is in its infancy (Cohen and Hochberg, 2014). Earlier studies mainly focused on corporate intentions, while startups’ perspectives and their use of the programs’ provided opportunities were hardly addressed (Cohen and Hochberg, 2014). Beyond the direct financial, infrastructure as well as business knowledge support, networking opportunities have been stated as a major reason for new ventures to join an accelerator program (Cohen, 2013). Effective corporate accelerators are consequently said to provide access to a large, valuable network and support startups in initiating respective contacts (Kohler, 2016). Despite this understanding, it has remained unclear how startups initiate respective contacts accordingly and how corporate accelerators support and impact their network development. The value of initiating and approaching network ties, which help startups overcome their initial liabilities, has been universally acknowledged and the concept of networks has emerged as a major area in the entrepreneurship literature (Birley, 1985; Dubini and Aldrich, 1991; Hite and Hesterly, 2001).

2.3 The Importance of Networks for Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs do not exclusively operate as autonomous entities but are embedded in a system of social relations and, to a certain extent, depend on their environment (Aldrich and Zimmer, 1986; Granovetter, 1985). The relationships of an entrepreneur generate social capital, which refers to the resources that are available through the resulting network and can contribute to entrepreneurial goals (Inkpen and Tsang, 2005; Nahapiet and Ghoshal, 1998). Research on entrepreneurial networks is grounded in organizational and social network literature (Hoang and Antoncic, 2003; Slotte-Kock and Coviello, 2010). In general, networks have been defined as “a set of nodes and a set of ties” (Brass et al., 2004, p.795). Whereas nodes consist of individuals or firms, ties refer to the relationships enacted by the respective actors (Dubini and Aldrich, 1991; Hoang and Antoncic, 2003). In the context of new venture creation, research typically focuses on the entrepreneur’s personal or “ego” network as the unit of analysis (Hoang and Yi, 2015) and includes the direct ties to the entrepreneur, which provide important resources for his venture development (Dodd and Patra, 2002). As in the early stages of firm creation the entrepreneur himself largely impersonates his venture, social and business dimensions of the respective network ties are hardly distinguishable and the entrepreneur’s personal network includes formal and informal relationships with both individuals and organizations (Chandler and Hanks, 1994; Johannisson et al., 1994; O’Donnell et al., 2010).

Entrepreneurial networks that enlarge the access to crucial resources constitute key determinants for new venture success (Birley, 1985; Dubini and Aldrich, 1991). Resources received through these networks typically include capital (Birley, 1985), emotional support for entrepreneurial risk-taking (Aldrich and Zimmer, 1986; Brüderl and Preisendorfer, 1998), information and advice (Birley, 1985; Hoang and Antoncic, 2003) as well as reputational content (Stuart et al., 1999). Regarding the type of accessible resources, the strength of network ties has emerged as a key notion. Thereby, strong ties describe intense, longer-term relationships between similar people, friends or family which the focal actor can trust and rely on in good and in bad times (Elfring and Hulsink, 2007; Uzzi, 1997). By contrast, weak ties refer to non-affective, rather loose relationships that provide access to a more diverse set of resources and help to spot new business opportunities (Elfring and Hulsink, 2003). Weak ties typically lie outside of the entrepreneur’s immediate network and bridge groups of otherwise strongly interconnected actors (Granovetter, 1973). These overlapping connections hence enable wider possibilities within extended networks (Neergaard, 2005).

Research has provided evidence that the access to networks helps to increase new ventures’ growth and chances of survival, which Brüderl and Preisendörfer (1998) termed as the “network success hypothesis”. This hypothesis infers that through their relationships, entrepreneurs can access resources otherwise unavailable or more expensive when receiving them through market transactions (Dubini and Aldrich, 1991; Witt, 2004). Thereby, network ties can significantly reduce time and capital needed to gather vital information and to improve the startup’s product (Davidsson and Honig, 2003). Apart from the direct acquisition of resources, they enhance the possibility of discovering new business opportunities (Elfring and Hulsink, 2003; Jack and Anderson, 2002) and help to gain market credibility and legitimacy, especially when establishing ties to reputable business partners (Aldrich and Fiol, 1994; Elfring and Hulsink, 2003). Finally, network support has demonstrated positive impacts on the timely achievement of important startup milestones such as the development of a business plan, the creation of a prototype or working product or the acquisition of new customers, clients and sales channels (Hoang and Yi, 2015).

Lastly, it should be added that entrepreneurial networks are not static (Greve and Salaff, 2003) but respective relationships evolve during the stages of venture development, meaning that, to a certain extent, the venture and its network codevelop (Slotte-Cock and Coviello, 2010). Larson and Starr (1993) introduced a model that has become a major reference to display the process of entrepreneurial network development (Hoang and Antoncic, 2003). The model illustrates that while entrepreneurs particularly rely on close contacts in their very first stage, network ties gain complexity throughout the venture development and then often include both social components and economic purposes (Larson and Starr, 1993). As ventures grow, their resource needs change and thus also their network relations adapt (Hite, 1998). Over time, entrepreneurial networks are said to evolve from identity-based networks dominated by strong ties to intentionally managed ones that are rich in weak ties (Hite and Hesterly, 2001).

While structural aspects of networks have received much attention in the entrepreneurship literature, the processes of network development and especially the mechanisms through which new ties are initiated remain relatively neglected (Hoang and Antoncic, 2003; Jack, 2010; Stuart & Sorenson, 2007). A possible explanation for the comparably limited research on entrepreneurial networking has been traced back to the previous failure of not addressing “networks” and “networking” separately (O’Donnell et al., 2001).

2.4 Entrepreneurial Networking

Despite being closely connected, the notions of “networks” and “networking” represent distinct concepts as such (O’Donnell et al., 2001; Hoang and Antoncic, 2003; Jack, 2010). While networks describe constructs of various actors (Dubini and Aldrich, 1991), entrepreneurial networking refers to the initial formation and subsequent management of respective relationships in a business context (Aldrich and Zimmer, 1986; Hoang and Antoncic, 2003). It describes the entrepreneur’s activities to build up a valuable network and the social processes underlying the exchange of resources in these networks (Engel et al., 2017). The previously outlined coherences and the overall context of entrepreneurial networking are displayed in Figure 1.

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Figure 1: The Entrepreneurial Networking Context

Extant literature has predominantly portrayed entrepreneurs as strategic actors that intentionally search for and engage with valuable network ties (Engel et al., 2017; Hallen and Eisenhardt, 2012). In line with that, Stuart and Sorenson (2007, p.211) argue that “most entrepreneurs and young ventures are strategic in their formation of relations” and Vissa (2011) describes a planned networking behaviour of entrepreneurs, which starts with screening potential partners before the actual tie formation. This type of entrepreneurial networking is characterized by rational self-interest and can consequently be seen as instrumental and functionally purposeful (Drakopoulou Dodd et al., 2006). As a means to an end, strategic networking is aimed at reaching pre-defined goals by approaching the “right” network ties (Engel et al., 2017).

In contrast to the prevailing strategic perspective of networking, it has been argued that entrepreneurship is characterized by a general ambiguity which often makes an ex ante definition of desired network ties and outcomes difficult. Given this uncertainty, entrepreneurial networking might also happen in an explorative manner that involves serendipity (Engel et al., 2017). In this case, there might not be a pre-defined motivation to approach others but social interaction may itself become a trigger for the entrepreneur to create new ideas, refine existing approaches and discover new opportunities and goals (Engel et al., 2017). New ties are formed to expose the venture to a diverse social environment that provides heterogeneous perspectives and can further reveal unexpected, advantageous contingencies. Apart from that, Johannisson and Mønsted (1997) argue that personal affective networking, which includes genuine interaction and exchanges, mostly happens spontaneously and intuitively. Extant literature has acknowledged that both ways of networking are present and can likewise help entrepreneurs in further developing their ventures (Aldrich and Zimmer, 1986; Sarasvathy, 2001; Vissa, 2012).

Despite the positive prospects of networks, tie formation can be difficult for new ventures given their uncertainty about promising network paths (Kim and Aldrich, 2005) and the initial lack of outside knowledge about their trustworthiness (Hite and Hesterly, 2001). As a consequence, tie formation is often unsuccessful and might constitute a waste of time and effort (Baum et al., 2000). In this context, “efficient tie formation” has been said to allow initiating more and better contacts within the same time and is crucial to “avoid lengthy and high-effort searches, failed attempts, and undesirable partners” (Hallen and Eisenhardt, 2012, p. 35). Previous research has identified distinct approaches that startups use to increase the likelihood of successful tie formation (Hallen, 2008). Zott and Huy (2007) showed that the use of symbolic actions signalling venture quality made entrepreneurs more successful in assessing resources. Moreover, timing tie formation around the achievement of critical firm milestones has been found to enhance networking efficiency (Hallen and Eisenhardt, 2012). Apart from that, firms are likely to use existing ties as brokers to successfully initiate new contacts (Brass et al, 2004; Hallen, 2008) and to bridge structural holes, which describe the absence of direct ties between respective actors (Burt, 1992). More specifically, referrals through common third parties help to initiate valuable contacts and decrease the number of new ties that have to be approached to pursue certain goals (Vissa, 2011). In the absence of common ties, startups typically visit particular events to exchange with diverse weak ties (Elfring and Hulsink, 2007). Finally, startups try to initially meet potential partners in a casual context in which they ask for advice (Hallen and Eisenhardt, 2012). These casual meetings have shown to increase familiarity and interpersonal knowledge (Vissa, 2012) and can be beneficial as contacts who provide advice might develop affection towards the respective venture (Hallen and Eisenhardt, 2012).

Given corporate accelerators’ intermediary position between startups and their own broad accelerator network, these programs might provide mechanisms that foster startups’ successful initiation of new weak ties. Corporate accelerators could facilitate network tie formation by acting as brokers and attracting valuable, established actors that would otherwise be less likely to commit their resources due to the lack of trustworthiness of the startups at this early stage (Hite and Hesterly, 2001). To summarize, corporate accelerators can support ventures in building up valuable networks (Cohen, 2013; Kohler, 2016), which are important for their growth and success (Birley, 1985; Dubini and Aldrich, 1991). Despite the importance of networking within these programs, corresponding activities of participants have not been studied so far. The goal of this dissertation is consequently to shed light upon the intentions and ways in which startups make use of networking opportunities within corporate accelerators and to examine how these programs might impact entrepreneurial networking.


To explore networking within corporate accelerators, an inductive, theory-building approach was applied. The following section outlines this approach and presents the study sample. Lastly, the underlying data collection and analysis are described.

3.1 Research Approach

Due to the lack of prior research on mechanisms and activities pursued within corporate accelerator programs, a case study design seemed most promising to address the underlying research questions (Eisenhardt 1989; Yin 2014). Case studies empirically investigate contemporary phenomena (Yin, 2009) and are primarily used to derive insights related to questions of “how” and “why” and to develop new theories (Eisenhardt, 1989). They typically combine multiple sources of data collection, such as interviews, archival data, questionnaires or observations (Eisenhardt, 1989) while being predominated by qualitative data (Patton and Appelbaum, 2003). To overcome the occasional criticism of case studies as being very context specific and not replicable (Yin, 2009), the underlying thesis applies a multiple case study method, which is said to be more robust and strong in terms of theory building. Comparisons between cases can confirm emerging patterns and improve their validity while differences provide the opportunity to extend and refine emerging theory (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin, 2014).

To begin with, relevant literature was reviewed to derive theoretical insights on corporate accelerators and to create an understanding of prior knowledge of the network construct and networking within entrepreneurship. In parallel to reviewing existing literature, an exploratory study was conducted. An unstructured interview with a corporate accelerator graduate was performed to examine experiences and perceived benefits from the program participation and to discuss the aspect of networking in this specific context. Beyond that, the research questions were discussed with an industry expert on accelerator programs. Both interviews reflected the importance of networking within corporate accelerators and thus ensured the practical relevance of the research topic. To deepen the understanding of corporate accelerators and to identify programs from which case startups could be chosen, secondary data was collected from industry reports and trade publications (e.g. TechCrunch and To identify relevant programs, a global corporate accelerator data base ( was consulted in the first step. It was then decided to exclusively focus on corporate accelerators in Germany for three reasons: With the second highest number of corporate accelerators in Europe (Kohler, 2016) and the global significance of Berlin as a major startup hub (EU-Startups, 2016), Germany constitutes an environment that is comparably experienced in the area. Moreover, the possibility of conducting interviews in both the study participants’ and the researcher’s mother tongue promised deeper, more accurate results. Finally, by focusing on one country, possible bias from regional or cultural differences can be prevented. With the help of press releases, accelerator webpages and annual reports of the programs’ sponsor firms, relevant programs were ultimately identified. In line with the theoretical definitions, these programs fulfilled the following criteria: (i) cohort-based, short-term program ending with a demo-day, (ii) targeting early-stage startups, (iii) education, mentorship, networking and funding components, (iv) sponsorship by one established firm with or without the support of a private accelerator. Table 1 illustrates the pursued research approach, which will be elaborated on in more detail in the following sections.

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Table 1: Overview of Research Approach

3.2 Case Selection and Data Source

The exploratory study initially allowed two important conclusions. Firstly, many corporate initiatives are labelled “accelerator programs” although not corresponding to theoretical definitions. In total, only eight corporate programs fulfilled all four criteria stated above. Further analysis of these programs revealed significant differences in the accelerators’ strategic objectives, which resulted in the identification of two main corporate accelerator types. The first type, which was labelled “investment vehicle”, describes programs that take equity from startups of diverse industries and focus on increasing the startups’ value to profit from selling their shares at a premium. In contrast, programs from the second “innovation vehicle” type target startups within specific areas that are strongly linked to the incumbent firm’s operations and focus on fostering corporate innovation by initiating collaborations with participating startups. Table 2 contrasts these two program types. A complete overview and further information about each relevant corporate accelerator can be found in Appendix A.

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Table 2: Comparison of Corporate Accelerator Types

In theory-building research, choosing the right study objects is an important aspect. Thereby, multiple case studies rely on theoretical sampling in which cases are selected based on their suitability for explaining relationships and constructs under study (Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007). In this context, the identified differences among corporate accelerators were considered important for the study as they might influence benefits and opportunities for participating startups. While investment vehicle programs might focus on connecting startups to diverse actors that can increase their success and valuation, innovation vehicle programs might instead foster networking with the incumbent firm to realize collaborations. Consequently, the study sample should include startups from both program types to allow contrasting propositions and to reveal a more realistic picture (Yin, 2009).

The six selected case startups were all founded in Germany between 2014 and 2016 by two to four co-founders who did not dispose of extensive prior work or founding experience. Three of them participated in one of the focal innovation vehicle programs while the other three went through an investment vehicle program. At the time of participation, the majority of the startups was still concerned with further developing their products while two of them were in a slightly later stage already and primarily focused on customer acquisition and the development of marketing channels (Real Estate, Parking). Three of them (Real Estate, Parking, Locker) already disposed of an initial network including entrepreneurs from related areas and some business angels, while the others (Analytics, Automotive, Food) only had few supportive contacts. All startups made use of technology for their products and services but operated in various, different industries.

Table 3 shortly presents the six case startups, which participated in the focal corporate accelerator programs between 2015 and 2016. The names of the respective startups are disguised to ensure confidentiality.

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Table 3: Overview of Case Startups

3.3 Data Collection

To increase data richness and accuracy, primary data from two groups of respondents was enlarged by secondary data to achieve data triangulation, which implies “more than one method or source of data” (Bryman, 2012, p.392). Thereby, secondary data from the exploratory study was complemented with data from the startups’ webpages, available pitch presentations, press releases and startup databases (e.g. Crunchbase) to double-check interview statements and to enlarge information about the case startups. Primary data was derived from in-depth, semi-structured interviews. This type of data collection facilitates comparability as interviewees answer the same questions while ensuring flexibility as it allows the researcher to deviate from pre-defined questions as soon as interesting, unexpected aspects are revealed (Bryman, 2012). To achieve a high-quality research, interviews with one co-founder of each case startup were supplemented with two interviews among corporate accelerator personnel. These corporate interviews each represented one type of corporate accelerator and helped to create an understanding of the corporate perspective of networking within the programs. They further provided information about program objectives as well as provided services and allowed for a more holistic view of the case data.

The interview guide for the startups was developed in two stages. Initial topics and questions were defined based on literature review (O’Donnell and Cummins, 1999). Subsequently, a pilot interview was conducted to evaluate the practicability of the questions. The pilot interview was carried out with one recent, non-German-speaking startup graduate from the DB Accelerator program and was thus held in English. The additional corporate interview guide was defined along the same topics – intentions and activities of networking and corporate accelerator impact – and was extended after finishing the startup interviews to capture main aspects emerging from the venture statements. Both interview guides can be found in Appendices B and C. Potential startup interviewees were identified via the websites of the focal corporate accelerators and subsequently approached through LinkedIn or e-mail to describe the purpose of the study and ask for participation. Corporate members were approached through third, common contacts who made an e-mail introduction of the researcher to initiate a first contact. Data collection continued until new cases did no longer enrich the generated understanding, meaning that theoretical saturation was reached (Eisenhardt and Graebner, 2007). In total, in-depth interviews with eight respondents were conducted (excluding the pilot and both exploratory interviews). For each startup one of the co-founders was interviewed, which included five male and one female respondent. On the corporate side, one female representative of the DB Accelerator (innovation vehicle program) and one male member of the ProSiebenSat.1 Accelerator (investment vehicle program) participated in the study. Seven of the interviews were conducted via Skype, whereas one was done by phone. The startup interviews lasted between 40 and 60 minutes while the corporate interviews took around 40 minutes. All interviews were audio-recorded after the participants’ prior consent and transcribed on that same day. Appendix D presents an overview of all interviews conducted.

3.4 Data Analysis and Structure

Data analysis included „breaking down, examining, comparing, conceptualizing and categorizing data” (Strauss and Corbin, 1990, p. 61). Initially, to get familiar with the interview content, the transcripts were read multiple times (Shaw, 1999) and subsequently coded as an important step of inductive, qualitative data analysis (Eisenhardt, 1989). First-order concepts (Van Maanen, 1979) were derived from codes that closely matched informants’ own language or constituted short descriptive sentences (Corley and Gioia, 2004). To begin with, each case was analyzed separately, which is referred to as within-case analysis (Miles and Huberman, 1994) to create a deep understanding of each startup’s intentions and networking activities. The interviews were structured along the overarching research questions and the resulting first-order concepts and respective text passages were organized in separate excel sheets. The initial separate analysis was followed by a cross-case analysis (Miles and Huberman, 1994), which served to identify recurring codes as well as similarities, differences and underlying patterns by contrasting the different cases. First-order concepts were refined, consolidated and grouped into ten second-order themes. Within this replication logic each case served as an independent experiment that could confirm or disconfirm emerging insights (Eisenhardt, 1989). Respective literature was reviewed in parallel to enrich emerging themes without trying to fit the data into pre-specified frameworks (Gioia et al., 2013). Tying the emergent theory to existing literature has been claimed especially important to enhance validity and generalizability in case study research (Eisenhardt, 1989). The final data structure is illustrated in Figure 2.


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Corporate Accelerator Programs. Supporting Startup Success by Fostering Entrepreneurial Networking
Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics
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Accelerator, Corporate Accelerator, startup, entrepreneurship, innovation, entrepreneurial networking, networking, corporate innovation, Acceleratorprogramm, netzwerke, acceleratoren, case study, qualitative forschung, interviews, exploratory study, explorative Studie, ventures
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Vanessa Ostertag (Author), 2017, Corporate Accelerator Programs. Supporting Startup Success by Fostering Entrepreneurial Networking, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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