Corporate Innovation/News/

Corporate innovation weekly: from weed-selling software to eco-shipping

This is how big global corporations are changing their businesses by working with startups and developing new technologies.

By Maija Palmer



BASF Venture Capital, the investment arm of the chemicals group, and Canada’s TELUS Ventures led a Series B investment round in Hummingbird Technologies, a UK startup that uses drones to give farmers more information about their fields. For example, alerting farmers to disease outbreaks, advising on where to fertilise and predicting crop yields.



Evolv Ventures, the investment fund backed by Kraft Heinz, led a $23m Series A funding round in Flowhub, a Denver-based startup providing sales software for cannabis companies.

Due to tight regulation cannabis needs special retail software — in Colorado every plant grown, every product sold and every person involved must be tracked, much of it with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags (great explanation here). If Flowhub can solve this complex problem it could be used to track other retail supply chains as well. This may explain why Kraft Heinz is so interested. That or it’s interested in developing a new line of hash brownies. 



Vodafone has signed a deal to provide 5G sim cards to Chinese drone company EHang. This will help to develop a system that will stop drones and other urban air vehicles from colliding with each other.

Perwoll laundry detergent



Chemicals companies Henkel and BASF are running a joint pilot programme to make bottles out of chemically recycled plastic for Henkel’s Perwoll washing detergent for woollens and delicate items. 

Conventional plastic recycling involves grinding plastic back into small granules, but mixed and coloured plastics cannot be recycled this way. Under pressure from the public plastics companies are rushing to invest in chemical recycling specialists. Earlier this month BASF invested in Norwegian energy company Quantafuel to drive chemical recycling of mixed plastic waste.

Financial Services


InterActiveCorp (IAC) led a $22m Series A funding round in Thimble, the New York-based insurance startup that provides short-term insurance cover for freelancers and contractors.  Thimble started life in 2016 as Verifly, providing insurance cover for drone operators, but broadened its scope as the need for gig economy insurance emerged as a fast-growing niche. AXA Venture Partners, Slow Ventures and Open Ocean also took part in the round.



Life insurance companies are the slowpokes of the industry when it comes to digitisation, says CBInsights, much slower than their counterparts in property and casualty when it comes to adopting new tech. But they are starting to catch up: 12 of the top 20 US life insurers has invested in at least one startup.



Santander InnoVentures led a €35m Series B funding round in CrossLend, a Berlin-based digital debt marketplace. The startup, founded in 2014, provides a platform for institutions to invest more easily in different kinds of debt, from consumer loans and invoices to business loans and mortgages. Existing investors Lakestar, ABN Amro Ventures and Earlybird also took part in the round.



Renault Venture Capital led a $30m Series B round in Upstream Security, an Israeli company that provides cybersecurity for connected cars. Volvo Group Venture Capital, Hyundai, Hyundai AutoEver and Nationwide Ventures also took part. 

Hacking into connected cars has been identified as a potential national security threat — imagine a whole fleet of connected cars hacked during rush hour. It’s the kind of threat that car makers warn shareholders about in their annual report disclosures (although they are less keen to tell customers about it). It makes sense to invest in companies providing a solution.



Volvo has created an autonomous transport group. Realistically, getting self-driving cars onto complex and chaotic public roads is going to take a long time. But self-driving vehicles in more controlled, privately-owned areas like mines, ports and construction sites? That’s likely to happen much sooner. Volvo has created a business unit, Volvo Autonomous Solutions, to develop this business after seeing a “significant increase in inquiries from customers”.



Merck launched a $13.5m seed fund to invest in Chinese startups. The German science and pharma company has also opened an innovation hub in Shanghai and is planning a second one in Guangzhou. It already runs an accelerator programme in China that has worked with six startups.



Boehringer Ingelheim Venture Fund, the investment arm of the German pharma company, co-led a €12m Series A round in Abalos Therapeutics, a German startup developing virus strains that attack cancerous tumours. 

Boehringer Ingelheim also became a partner of Design Health Barcelona, a programme that trains postgraduate students to become innovators in healthcare using methodology created by Stanford University.



Danish conglomerate Maersk appointed Jacob Sterling the new head of technical innovation. Sterling’s main job, judging by his LinkedIn post, is to help develop a carbon-neutral container ship by 2030, something Maersk publicly pledged to do last month.  

Maritime shipping contributes around 3% of global pollution and changing it is not going to be easy. It will mean moving to a different type of propulsion and fuel, and ships have a 25-year-life span so swapping to cleaner vessels will be a slow process (as this excellent Wall Street Journal article explains). It will be — dare I say it? — a bit like getting an oil tanker to change direction. 


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