Instituto Hélice: How Open Innovation Can Boost a Startup’s Growth

3 min read
22 Nov 2023

or the last five years, Instituto Hélice has been a key partner in accelerating the innovation ecosystem in Rio Grande do Sul, especially around Caxias do Sul, the second-largest city in the state, in a region called Serra Gaúcha. Today, Instituto Hélice consists of around thirty players, including associated companies, institutions and supporters in nine cities. Led by CEO Salissa Paes Festugato, an extensive innovation expert, it nurtures the regional ecosystem by connecting companies, entrepreneurs, educational institutions, public authorities, investors and enthusiasts. It also has a governance board comprising sponsors’ C-levels, ensuring a long-term strategic vision and guarding the institute’s purpose.

“Our first goal is to help accelerate the maturity level of innovation within our associates,” she says. “But we also focus on developing a solid innovation culture, making it accessible to the entire community and network.” Additionally, the institute aims to develop, attract and retain talent in the region, with extra training and educational support within the ecosystem. “We want to build an ecosystem attractive enough to keep our entrepreneurs and talents here, while attracting outsiders and startups from other parts of Brazil.” 

The key support for that growth is open innovation. In Salissa’s words, open innovation allows established companies and startups to access external resources within the ecosystem, creating unlimited opportunities for all players. “It can be technical competence, financial or material resources, industry-specific or business knowledge,” she says. “With Hélice, they can exchange and grow together.” The gain of adopting an open innovation framework is not only growth but also time. “Alone, it might take someone two or three years to develop something. When there’s an external network for support, there might be a solution in six months. The pace of that type of innovation is completely different. We often say that Hélice helps companies buy a lot of time.”

Salissa Paes Festugato, CEO at Instituto Hélice — Photo by Marina Gomes

Associated companies looking to solve their pains with open innovation will first complete a briefing so their needs are understood by other members of the ecosystem. Then, there’s a technological search that happens within Hélice: entrepreneurs, startups, research centers and even educational institutions can help solve the problem.

On top of that, the institute organizes pitch and demo days, preparing entrepreneurs to get ready for their first connections to the ecosystem. “We can follow the whole process, from the briefing to the proof of concept and the next possible hire. We support our associates to fully connect with the ecosystem and our process is holistic.”

Collaboration is a basic attribute of relationships that believe in joint growth. To see your region grow, that growth must happen collectively, and collaboration is the premise for that. 

There are, however, challenges. “Entrepreneurs must be open to new ideas and have zero attachment to their solution. You have to be willing to change course because sometimes, the market changes,” says Salissa. “The speed of innovation is an opportunity, but products and ideas can become obsolete, and fast. We use the ‘kill your darlings’ expression a lot.” Startups might have a very different pace from corporations. She also highlights that to collaborate more effectively, it’s necessary to remain curious and open to learning. “The collaboration between corporates and startups that Instituto Hélice provides generates incredible benefits for both sides, and one business can learn a lot from the other. This collaboration between entrepreneurs and companies has favored the generation of businesses and the growth of the entire Serra Gaúcha region.”

Aligning with its values of growth and collaboration, Instituto Hélice launched Speed Hélice, the first accelerator program in the Serra Gaúcha region, in 2022. The program saw fourteen startups from seven municipalities receive business training in several categories, from agile planning, team building and management to branding, governance and financial management. Fifty percent of entrepreneurs were women, and Speed Hélice lasted for seventy hours over four months. “We offered collective and individual mentoring and saw many businesses receive funding shortly after graduating,” she says. Speed Hélice is currently getting ready for the second round of the accelerator.

Salissa Paes Festugato, CEO at Instituto Hélice — Photo by Marina Gomes

Finally, Salissa highlights that collaboration comes from understanding abundance. “We believe there’s room for everyone. We share first without thinking about what we’ll get back.” It is a demonstration of Instituto Hélice’s belief in the growth of the region, state and country. 

Salissa Festugato's most important tips for startups:

  • Research the ecosystem before starting your business. Look for a region with a favorable regulatory environment, qualified labor and good quality of life. A startup is about people and, usually, their families. Look for a region that provides access to culture, leisure, security and education.
  • Join innovation events in your ecosystem. Whether locally, nationally or globally, ask what’s happening in innovation and your market. Events allow access to a qualified network of companies, mentors and investors.
  • Have a significant and relevant support network. You can find innovative solutions outside your business. Reaching out to your network can speed up the innovation pace and solve pains in a fraction of the time.
  • Be willing to be part of a team. If the ecosystem is still developing, have the disposition to be a protagonist in its construction. You might still have a long way to go, so being available to learn and collaborate with the ecosystem is also fundamental.