Which emerging technologies are enterprise companies getting serious about in 2020?

Startups need to live in the future. They create roadmaps, build products and continually upgrade them with an eye on next year — or even a few years out.

Big companies, often the target customers for startups, live in a much more near-term world. They buy technologies that can solve problems they know about today, rather than those they may face a couple bends down the road. In other words, they’re driving a Dodge, and most tech entrepreneurs are driving a DeLorean equipped with a flux-capacitor.

That situation can lead to a huge waste of time for startups that want to sell to enterprise customers: a business development black hole. Startups are talking about technology shifts and customer demands that the executives inside the large company — even if they have “innovation,” “IT,” or “emerging technology” in their titles — just don’t see as an urgent priority yet, or can’t sell to their colleagues.

How do you avoid the aforementioned black hole? Some recent research that my company, Innovation Leader, conducted in collaboration with KPMG LLP, suggests a constructive approach.

Rather than asking large companies about which technologies they were experimenting with, we created four buckets, based on what you might call “commitment level.” (Our survey had 211 respondents, 62% of them in North America and 59% at companies with greater than $1 billion in annual revenue.) We asked survey respondents to assess a list of 16 technologies, from advanced analytics to quantum computing, and put each one into one of these four buckets. We conducted the survey at the tail end of Q3 2020.

Respondents in the first group were “not exploring or investing” — in other words, “we don’t care about this right now.” The top technology there was quantum computing.

Bucket #2 was the second-lowest commitment level: “learning and exploring.” At this stage, a startup gets to educate its prospective corporate customer about an emerging technology — but nabbing a purchase commitment is still quite a few exits down the highway. It can be constructive to begin building relationships when a company is at this stage, but your sales staff shouldn’t start calculating their commissions just yet.

Here are the top five things that fell into the “learning and exploring” cohort, in ranked order:

  1. Blockchain.
  2. Augmented reality/mixed reality.
  3. Virtual reality.
  4. AI/machine learning.
  5. Wearable devices.

Technologies in the third group, “investing or piloting,” may represent the sweet spot for startups. At this stage, the corporate customer has already discovered some internal problem or use case that the technology might address. They may have shaken loose some early funding. They may have departments internally, or test sites externally, where they know they can conduct pilots. Often, they’re assessing what established tech vendors like Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco can provide — and they may find their solutions wanting.

Here’s what our survey respondents put into the “investing or piloting” bucket, in ranked order:

  1. Advanced analytics.
  2. AI/machine learning.
  3. Collaboration tools and software.
  4. Cloud infrastructure and services.
  5. Internet of things/new sensors.

By the time a technology is placed into the fourth category, which we dubbed “in-market or accelerating investment,” it may be too late for a startup to find a foothold. There’s already a clear understanding of at least some of the use cases or problems that need solving, and return-on-investment metrics have been established. But some providers have already been chosen, based on successful pilots and you may need to dislodge someone that the enterprise is already working with. It can happen, but the headwinds are strong.

Here’s what the survey respondents placed into the “in-market or accelerating investment” bucket, in ranked order:

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