Many observers agree that future growth opportunities for the financial services industry will derive from innovation in technology products and services.

Today, innovations being pursued range from robot advisers to bank-agnostic accounts to social networks that incorporate trading and lending.

While there is broad consensus that digital innovation such as the above will transform the financial services sector, established firms are intrinsically disadvantaged compared to startups in pursuing something that would disrupt their business.

While banks possess a lot of capital and technology experts, they are committed to servicing their current customers operating under legacy service models. Therefore, it is difficult for disruptive innovation initiatives to compete for the funding, resources and support they need to bring a new technology model to fruition.

Startups, meanwhile, are built to pursue disruptive innovation. They have a singular focus on new models, are nimble and can chase markets that did not previously exist. Moreover, they have permission to fail and are generally recognized as a high-risk investment. Established firms can rarely fund and support these types of initiatives internally.

So what can financial services firms do to effectively pursue disruptive innovation? The real objective is to work collaboratively with startups to tap into their ability to focus and be flexible — without outright acquiring them, and thus, losing those same benefits. Here are three options for working with startups:

Contract for services: Instead of investing in a startup outright, contract with one for a specific piece of work, such as a prototype or proof of concept of a new technology application. For instance, a major international bank recently contracted with the blockchain platform startup, AlphaPoint Corporation, to develop a proof of concept for a white-label digital asset exchange solution rather than fund an internal project.

Venture development: Use corporate venture development firms such as Highnote Foundry, BCG Digital Ventures and Frost Data Capital. These types of firms, which combine capital investment, ideation and incubation, specialize in forming startups around targeted innovation ideas. For instance, BCG Digital Ventures partnered with Symantec to incubate cybersecurity startups.

Innovation centers: Fund a stand-alone captive incubator that is located near a major computer science school. For instance, Apple, Google and Intel have established footprints in the Collaborative Innovation Center at Carnegie Mellon, which is next to the School of Computer Science. The tech companies collaborate with students and faculty researchers on new technologies and business ventures. With this innovation center model, one cautionary note: The center lives inside the corporate entity structure; therefore, special focus is required to avoid the governance intrusion that can impede focus and flexibility.

In all cases, it is important that funding for these initiatives come from the business and that a strong executive commitment to pursuing alternative innovation models exists.

Large established institutions can effectively pursue and cultivate disruptive innovation if they create an environment that allows the prerequisites of creativity and agility to come to the fore.

John Eagleson is a director for the business optimization and outsourcing advisory firm Pace Harmon. Luc Werner is a Pace Harmon analyst.