AT&T Defends Carrier Incubators

SAUSALITO, Calif. -- John Donovan, senior executive VP of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s Technology and Network Operations, got a chance Tuesday, in front of a startup-minded crowd, to boast about the carrier's incubator program.

Donovan wasn't a formal speaker here at the VentureBeat Mobile Summit, but audience members were being encouraged to join the keynote conversation. It's an invitation-only event, patterned as more a discussion than a normal conference, and filled with young entrepreneurial types.

The morning session centered around speaker Amber Case, a founder of Geoloqi Inc., a startup working on geolocation technology for mobile apps.

Case needled service providers a bit, saying carrier size and bureaucracy stop carrier incubators from providing that nimble edge. "It's a really good idea. It's just that fundamentally, it's a long, laborious process," she said. "They'll have a guy from a design company who's leading it, and they haven't been at the company a long time. ... They don't even know the org chart."

Donovan, who had been AT&T's CTO until January, was sitting in the back of the room. He asked for a mic and got a chance to make his rebuttal.

AT&T's three innovation centers are running fast and have produced 11 services that are in the network, he said.

He added AT&T has spoken to 95 prospective startups this year and met a whopping 508 last year. The innovation center people had consulted with venture capitalists as to how to structure speed-dating meetings with these entrepreneurs: Bring two people, a senior one to say yes or no, and a junior one to vet what ideas might actually work -- and be ready to have the selected few start on Monday.

"We don't want to meet 508 every year. What we want to do is meet 60 and have all 60 hit our network as fast as possible. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way," he said.

The incubator topic came up around a larger discussion about location-based services -- specifically, what's standing in their way. Battery life was an issue Case mentioned a couple of times, since a mobile device that's tracking location has to store information on the network continually. The real-time updating of location information is a challenge, too, she said.

And both within and beyond the carriers, there seems to be a lot of duplication of effort, Case said. "I think a lot of people are trying to do the same things over and over again."

More on incubators and AT&T in particular:

— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading

gtchavan 12/5/2012 | 5:37:15 PM
re: AT&T Defends Carrier Incubators

A dinosaur like ATT does not have a CTO, they have an anti-CTO because they continously drive their suppliers to deliver obsolte technologies becasue the anti-CTO is continuously trying to find ways to use obsolte technologies to thier max capacity and avoid and delay new technologies as long as possible.

Pete Baldwin 12/5/2012 | 5:37:15 PM
re: AT&T Defends Carrier Incubators

It's got to be difficult to get a 20something to want to join AT&T or Verizon when so many interesting startups, staffed by peers, are just down the road.

I'd be curious to talk to people who took jobs at these incubators -- or took jobs and later left -- and find out how successful the carriers have been in creating a true entrepreneurial spirit. I'm sure they can do it in small doses. Keeping the spirit alive under the weight of the rest of the bureaucracy -- that doesn't sound easy.

Infostack 12/5/2012 | 5:37:13 PM
re: AT&T Defends Carrier Incubators

The telecom industry needs to the smartphone tidalwave the way the computer industry adjusted to the PC in the late 1980s.  Just like IBM, the carriers need to move from vertical integration, where the layers don't scale for precisely the reasons @chuckj indicate below, to horizontal orientation.  And like Apple, they can then offer up vertically complete ecosystems.  http://bit.ly/AzWLF3

davidandr 12/5/2012 | 5:37:08 PM
re: AT&T Defends Carrier Incubators

you should go visit ATT's innovation center in Palo Alto.

cool hip office with lots of new exciting projects going on, both from valley startups and insourced. 

sure innovation teams have to deal with some legacy thinking, but there's an increasing group of people at ATT who 'get it' and are helping to drive change. 

Disclaimer: My company is one of the companys that went from trial to production via the AT&T Foundry.  Great experience.

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