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When acquisitions become drivers of innovation

In the world of technology, companies are increasingly moving beyond growing organically and using acquisitions to enlarge their operations. Some have also made a strategic decision to acquire R&D rather than try to grow innovation in house.

Take for example Apple’s acquisition this summer of Toronto-based Locationary, the venture-backed startup that specializes in location data.  According to a number of market experts, this deal allows Apple – which has its own R&D division – to immediately augment its mapping service so that users can access up-to-date information on local businesses.

Whether the acquirer is Apple, Google or Blackberry, the objective in these acquisitions must be carefully defined. That’s the view of John Banks, who teaches MBA students about M&A at Waterloo, Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University. “Regardless of how attractive the deal price or fortuitous the opportunity, it is essential that the impact the acquisition is intended to have on the company’s strategic direction be both understood and realistic for the transaction to be truly successful,” Banks says.

Enterprises that use M&A to supplement their R&D can approach acquisitions in a passive or active way. Those doing a formal search process tend to have access to strong corporate finance skills and are able to apply rigorous valuations and criteria for potential deals. Banks agrees with the value of using specialized expertise: “The assessment needs to be especially meticulous since research shows that this particular aspect of M&A is often characterized by incomplete if not irrational thinking.”

A smaller company is often attractive as an acquisition target because it can have the flexibility of a speed boat that manoeuvers rapidly around larger ships. “There is the ability for a small company to be nimble and to not be hampered by bureaucracy. They can do R&D at a quicker pace and without legacy products,” says Amar Varma, founder of Xtreme Labs, a Toronto-based provider of mobile solutions to businesses. (Varma coached BumpTop prior to its acquisition by Google in 2010.)

The issue for a larger company that chooses to use M&A to develop an innovative product pipeline is the risk of missing the window of opportunity to buy. If the targets are very attractive, they will be acquired. Google bought YouTube and capitalized on gaining a unique business while it was still available in the market.

A common impetus to enter acquisition mode is when the larger company is looking to grow by boosting a product or service offering. Once the target has been identified, it’s all about timing.

Says Varma: “Startups are continually looking for cash. The ability for a startup to obtain cash through customers or investors can significantly impact the upward trajectory of the deal price. This means the acquirer must purchase a startup at the optimal time – before there is too much competition to buy. Often, there is no demand until there is demand.”

When a company uses acquisitions to supplement its R&D, the corporate finance process needs to be highly streamlined and focused on its mission. “In order for an acquisition to go well, there needs to be strategic alignment for the bigger vision of the deal, an appropriate integration plan that minimizes day-to-day disruptions, and consideration for the cultural fit of both companies,” says Haroon Mirza, entrepreneur in residence at OMERS Ventures and co-founder of CognoVision, which was acquired by Intel in 2010.

The period immediately after the acquisition can be challenging, particularly if the small enterprise bought for R&D development has a superior product, as this can cause resentment by the acquirer’s team of employees. The need for cultural fit suddenly becomes startlingly clear. The on-boarding entrepreneurs will need a top executive at the acquiring business to champion the buy.

“It becomes important to keep employees of the acquiree informed about what the acquisition means for them – this can be a confusing time for employees who may feel their jobs are at risk and could consider leaving if they’re not well-informed,” Mirza explains.

Mirza was satisfied with his and his co-founders’ decision to have CognoVision acquired by Intel. “I do agree that an M&A can be a viable alternative to organic growth. For the acquirer, benefits include immediate access to intellectual property, business and technical domain expertise in terms of talent, and also our customers.

“For the acquired company, benefits include gaining access to significantly more resources for R&D, sales and marketing which can accelerate business growth by means of improved sales reach, cost optimization, and increased revenues.”

Jacoline Loewen is a director at Crosbie & Co. Inc., a provider of advice to small and medium-sized businesses. She is also the author of “Money Magnet: How to Attract Investors to Your Business.”

Photo of M&A symbol courtesy of Shutterstock