AOL Debuts a Startup Incubator to Avoid Becoming a Dinosaur

June 2, 2016, 9:09 PM UTC
Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

In a world in which Yahoo can go from hot-shot Internet company to looking to sell of its core business, it’s no surprise that other early Internet hits are doing whatever they can to stay relevant.

AOL, originally known for “bringing America online” and those CD-ROMs that cluttered mailboxes, is one such Internet company. On Wednesday, it announced its latest effort to keep things fresh: a startup incubator.

AOL has created Area51, which will take in a few startups, give them money, provide them with guidance, and hope they grow into successful businesses. Ideally, at least some of these startups will provide AOL with a return on its investment, or become part of AOL as acquisitions or partners.

“I think like any company, we need to make sure we plan for the future,” AOL chief technology officer Bill Pence told Fortune.

Along with his duties of managing the company’s technology, Pence says he’s also tasked with putting AOL’s focus back on innovation. Pence has helped develop some of AOL’s other projects aimed at keeping the company on the cutting edge, like its collaboration with Cornell University on a technology lab in New York City.

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Area 51 will start by working with a couple of companies in the next few months and expand to roughly 10 over the next year, said Pence. The program, which will last six months, is open to current AOL employees and fresh college graduates.

To run the program, AOL is enlisting the help of some of its venture capital funds: BBG Ventures, Nautilus, and Dawn Patrol Ventures. Investors from these funds will not only mentor the startups, but they’ll also handle the vetting process.

AOL is pretty open-minded in terms of the types of companies it will consider, though they must be related to the company’s own competencies—media, advertising, and consumer Internet services. This is mostly so that the companies can nicely fit into and take advantage of AOL’s corporate resources.

“We’re not looking to go way outside our core like hardware or health tech and things like that,” said Pence.

The program is an obvious play for attracting—and retaining—employees, especially those with an entrepreneurial streak.

Like many other large companies, AOL has tried a variety of formats to emulate the agile and free-thinking style of startups. For example, it has Alpha, its experimental arm that builds various projects such as messaging app Pip, photo editing app Vivv, and Starlike, an app for tracking friends on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

“Everybody’s got some flavor of these, it’s become tablestakes,” Pence said of the proliferation of experimental labs and sandboxes that most large companies have created internally. Though it recently dismantled it, Facebook ran its Creative Labs unit for years, and of course there’s Alphabet’s X division (previously known as GoogleX), which serves as a large research and development arm.

However, both Ryan Block and Peter Rojas, who led Alpha for a couple of years after AOL acquired their company, have since left for new projects, proving that a sandbox might not always be enough to keep entrepreneurs at a big company. Yahoo learned that lesson the hard way—despite the billions of dollars it spent to essentially buy startup entrepreneurs, many have since left the company.

Along with creating a program that keeps things interested for adventurous employees, Area51 will also serve as a breeding ground for potential acquisitions or business partners for AOL, which itself was acquired by Verizon last year for $4.4 billion. In the end, some of the participating startups may be spun out into independent businesses or wound down if they’re not thriving, but some could be swallowed by AOL if they’re a good match. However, Pence says that the program’s goal is not to serve as a project factory for his employer.

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