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Nitin Jain got the inspiration for his startup GreenToken on a palm oil plantation in Indonesia in early 2019.

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Nitin Jain began developing GreenToken to offer businesses a way to certify that their raw materials were sustainably produced.Nitin Jain

At the time, the European Union was planning to phase out imports of what remains the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet, due to concerns over unsustainable farming practices. Mr. Jain was sent by his employer, SAP, the world’s largest provider of enterprise software, to better understand the production process.

Upon his return, Mr. Jain began developing GreenToken to offer businesses a way to certify that their raw materials were sustainably produced.

“There was a need to prove whether the palm you’re buying is coming from sustainable sources,” says Mr. Jain, who had a background in accounting and commodities trading.

“We created this solution for palm to begin with, but as we’ve learned, the solution has wider capabilities, so we went into the sustainable chemicals space, then the energy space, and now we’re working with virtually all bulk traded raw materials and commodities.”

GreenToken has since closed two funding rounds, employs 24 staff, and works with 13 enterprise customers. But unlike most startup founders who achieve such traction, Mr. Jain never quit his day job. In fact, he says he owes much of his success to SAP’s intrapreneurship program, which provides resources to staff that want to pursue independent business ventures.

When he first began pursuing the idea in 2019, Mr. Jain, who is based in Toronto, had to balance his day job with new responsibilities as a startup founder. Once funding was secured, Mr. Jain was sent to a startup boot camp where he and other SAP intrapreneurs received mentorship, training and face time with executives, including introductions to future customers.

“These interviews we got with large organizations would not have been possible if I was going out on my own,” Mr. Jain says. “When you’re getting all these benefits, why would you even think of going out on your own?”

In recent years SAP has expanded both its global intrapreneurship program and its Canadian-specific incubator-like program, True North Ventures, to help its staff pursue business ventures outside of their day-to-day responsibilities. While some intrapreneurs pursue ventures directly related to their work at SAP, others are entirely distinct. Those building solutions relevant to SAP customers are given the opportunity to compete for funding from the Fortune 500 company.

“For us, it’s a critical imperative,” says Cindy Fagen, managing director of SAP Labs Canada. “We need to seed new ideas and ... create this culture [of innovation].”

Ms. Fagen — who founded her own business, Scoop Media, in 2009 — acknowledges that the intrapreneurship program can ultimately inspire some of the company’s brightest minds to leave and pursue their new ventures full time.

“That is a risk for sure, we acknowledge that, but the question is, ‘would that happen eventually anyway?’” she says, adding that the program could also have the opposite effect. “I’m an example of that; if the company I had previously worked for had such a program, I might have stayed.”

In the digital age, more nimble competitors often disrupt large incumbents. Providing employees with the resources and opportunity to pursue new ideas internally is an effective way for organizations to remain innovative without risking their core business.

“Because of technology and ... innovation and because the startup world is really eating away at older, traditional models, larger organizations have to keep up with change,” says Shari Hughson, an innovation and entrepreneurship adjunct lecturer at Queen’s University.

Ms. Hughson says frontline staff have the greatest insight into customer needs and new business opportunities but often fear coming forward with bold ideas, especially in organizations that don’t explicitly encourage it. She adds that organizations need to encourage innovation with a formal intrepreneurship program or risk seeing those innovators become competitors.

“Find ways to encourage employees to be that entrepreneurial person for the organization,” she says. “It’s a win-win for both.”

Intrapreneurship expert and advisor Chitra Anand says organizations can identify potential innovators within their ranks based on certain characteristics. In her book, The Greenhouse Approach: Cultivating Intrapreneurship in Companies and Organizations, Dr. Anand lists 50 such attributes but says there are three that stand out above the rest.

“They know how to break rules systemically,” Dr. Anand says. “That’s the most important thing because if you think about these big companies [most people] are like, ‘oh my god, when is this going to get approved? It’s going to take forever; it’s just so slow and lethargic,’ so just knowing how to get things done is a huge deal.”

The second common attribute is that they often recognize and attract like-minded innovators within the organization, regardless of rank or department.

“The last one is that they are trend spotters; they see things before they happen,” she says. “They are readers, they are researchers, they’re writers, they’re travellers, they see things in the world and they bring that back to the organization to drive innovation.”

Dr. Anand says innovators exist in every large organization and believes that it’s incumbent on leaders to identify and nurture that talent through a formal intrapreneurship program. Those that don’t ultimately risk losing some of their brightest minds — or worse, are forced to compete against them.