AOL is creating a startup incubator to turn its employees into entrepreneurs

June 9, 2016

Last week, AOL announced the launch of AREA 51, a unique employee perk that will function as an in-house startup incubator. The incubator will select startups created by AOL employees and recent college graduates to participate in the program for up to six months, considering talent, market fit, AOL fit and execution feasibility in its application process.

If an idea is accepted into the program, AREA 51 will provide the funding, mentorship and tools for employees to develop out their projects, which can either merge into an AOL business or spin off into their own entities at the conclusion of the program.

We caught up with Osnat Benari, Senior Director of Research and Development at AOL, to discuss how the program came to be, how to apply and the long-term vision for AREA 51.

Built In:  Where was the idea for this program born out of?  

Osnat Benari: We are pitched with great ideas from employees and students all the time and we wanted to standardize the idea submission, filtering and support process. The AREA 51 program establishes a platform for AOL to expand its brand and grow into new areas, while creating opportunities for us to discover internal and external talent.

Employees are typically busy working on maintaining and growing existing, successful products. Until AREA 51 was formed, there was a situation where the employee had to make a choice: "do your job well and work on the idea in parallel/your spare time, etc."  AREA 51 allows current employees to bring all their passion, talent and energy to their idea while they step away from their current role temporarily. It's win-win. For graduating students, it creates an opportunity to participate in an internship that fosters their ideas and provides them with access to tools and networking with AOL employees and the participating VC firms.

BI: Do employees take time off from their AOL job when they participate in the program?

OB: Participants chosen for the program may spend up to six months developing innovative ideas with funding, mentorship, networking opportunities and access to AOL resources, tools and support from other AOL employees.

For current AOL employees, salary and benefits will not be effected although they will need to temporarily leave their current role. For recent graduates, it will be a paid internship.  

BI: Does an employee have to work for AOL for a certain amount of time before applying?

OB: Yes, current AOL employees must work at the company for at least one year and receive approval from their manager. AOL AREA 51 Program entrants who are not currently AOL employees and who are U.S. residents authorized to work in the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older and who have graduated from a four year accredited U.S. university and/or college within six months of registering to participate in the AOL AREA 51 Program are also eligible to participate in the AOL AREA 51 Program.

BI: What are you looking for in applicants that are recent graduates?

OB: We are looking for individuals that can bring their idea and/ or product to life.  A talented developer, product manager or designer are all welcome. As long as you have a positive attitude with a great idea — we are interested.

BI: What type of ideas is the Selection Board looking for?

OB: We are not limiting the topics. It can be a great app or a content idea, but it needs to resonate with what AOL can expand into. Fortunately, AOL touches upon many verticals, and the program will try to fit it into the appropriate division if we believe it’s an idea with great potential.

BI: What is the ultimate purpose of the program?

OB: To discover and create great products while growing our talent.

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