Belron discovers the route to a more innovative culture
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Belron discovers the route to a more innovative culture

Jessica Twentyman — November 2018

Nick Burton, head of technology at the auto glass market leader, outlines the value and inspiration that has flowed from its start-up accelerator program, Drive with Belron.

How can executives at large multinationals encourage the kind of freewheeling risk-taking that sparks disruptive innovation? Many find that a difficult question to answer, preferring instead to reward employees for behaviour that contributes to stability, such as diligently sticking to mandated business processes and consistently meeting key performance indicators.

It’s no wonder, then, that entrepreneurs are often very different people to executives who have been successful at big corporations, says Nick Burton, chief information and digital officer at vehicle glass repair and replacement company Belron, whose brands around the world include Autoglass, Carglass, Safelite, O’Brien, Lebeau and Hurtigruta. But bring those two groups together, Burton adds, and something extraordinary happens: a lively and valuable exchange of views, ideas and experiences that ultimately benefits both sides.

This is the thinking behind Drive with Belron, the company’s start-up accelerator program, which has completed its third year in 2018. Applications to the program come from start-ups working on many different technologies but Belron is most excited about how artificial intelligence (AI) could enhance its business.

Drive with Belron — run with the help of corporate innovation program specialist L Marks — involves the shortlisting of around 25 start-ups that are invited to pitch to senior Belron executives. A handful are then given the go-ahead to spend 10 weeks working on their innovation alongside Belron teams. At the end of the program, they showcase the fruits of that collaboration, with several — but by no means all — going on to receive funding from Belron.
Champions of AI

A great example is Polish AI start-up Soft Edge, which was one of three companies making up the 2018 Drive cohort. It worked with a Belron team from Carglass Belgium on an application for automating the detection and measurement of hailstone damage to vehicle glass and bodywork.

Currently, hail damage assessment is typically a manual process, conducted by technicians. They painstakingly catalog the number and size of dents and windshield cracks to assess the extent of the damage and the likely cost of putting it right, before passing on that information to insurers.


Soft Edge’s HailMaster app, by contrast, uses AI and machine learning to detect, measure and analyze images of hail damage based on photographs taken on a smartphone. The concept was tested during the 2018 Drive program on several vehicles awaiting hail damage repair at Carglass in order to develop the app further and refine its AI algorithms.

According to Soft Edge’s co-founder and head of business development, Vitalii Istushkin, by the end of the program the app could complete the task of assessing a car in 3 to 5 minutes, compared with 25 to 30 minutes taken by a human technician.   

The other winners in this year’s Drive program were also applying AI in innovative ways. Tel Aviv-based Bonobos uses AI to analyze the collection of incoming customer interactions — phone calls, emails, chat streams — and turn them into actionable insights for customer service and support staff. Meanwhile, UK-based RightIndem has added AI to its SaaS-based insurance claims management platform to automate claims approvals in straightforward cases, so that human assessment is reserved for more complex claims.
Source of inspiration

Burton has been careful to ensure the program involves a genuine exchange of ideas with entrepreneurs rather than simply positioning Belron as a source of investment. “We’re a windscreen company,” he says — albeit one with operations in more than 30 countries and 29,000 employees. “We’re proud of what we do and we don’t pretend to be anything else. We’re certainly not a venture capital firm.”

Some companies receive funding at the end of the process, says Burton. But it’s not the primary purpose of participation, says Burton. More valuable, he says, is the chance to work with Belron employees and benefit from their domain expertise and mentoring, and to develop their ideas further as a pilot within a Belron business.

Nick Burton, chief information and digital officer of Belron Group (Photo: Annika-Haas, EU2017EE)
“Companies don’t always want or need funding — it’s not at the heart of the program,” says Burton. In the three years that the program has been running, he adds, there have been 12 participants in total, of which five have received funding. What they value more is the opportunity to trial their products and validate their business models within a multinational setting. That includes helping the start-ups work out how to best present their products to CXOs at other large companies.

What Burton and his team get in return is nothing short of a new way of thinking. “Like many large companies, we’re big on process. We have ways of doing things that we know result in great customer service and experience and we reward people for sticking to those processes and striving for perfection,” he says.

“But innovation is difficult and messy and it’s about taking risks. With the Drive program we’re asking employees to do something entirely different, giving them permission to fail. That’s why it’s good to expose them to people who cope with experimentation and errors and risk on a daily basis.”

“And I’m very happy with the results,” he continues. “I’ve seen our people challenged and inspired, and I genuinely believe it’s got Belron thinking in a different way.”

First published November 2018
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