Cisco’s Model for a Bootcamp that Brings Multiple Companies Together to Innovate

By Kaitlin Milliken, Staff Writer 

Kate O’Keeffe, Founder of Cisco’s Hyper Innovation Living Lab

San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts has hosted collaborators from all over the world ever since it was built. In 1915, artists, inventors, and visionaries walked under the Palace’s Roman arches during that year’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which marked the completion of the Panama Canal, as well as San Francisco’s rebound from the devastating earthquake a dozen years earlier.
More than a century later, Cisco’s Hyper Innovation Living Lab (CHILL), a 48-hour innovation bootcamp, transformed the Palace of Fine Arts into CHILL’s Innovation Hangar. Inside the cavernous space, participants from multiple companies battled the clock to brainstorm, prototype, and present new ideas to users.

By bringing together teams from different companies, CHILL seeks solutions to problems that can only be solved collaboratively. Kate O’Keeffe, founder of CHILL, and her team carefully curate each lab, hand-picking participants from across industries.

“[I]t became clear to me that a lot of corporations needed to stop thinking about innovating independently from each other, and start thinking about how do they innovate as ecosystems,” she says. “In order to achieve disruption in some of the opportunity areas, it really wasn’t going to be enough for just one company to innovate in isolation.”

Participating organizations have included Walgreens, University of California San Francisco, and CitiBank.

CHILL has an impressive track record. According to Cisco, the living labs have so far led to two startups, seven patent applications, and over 20 internal growth initiatives, as of late 2018. During an interview with Innovation Leader, O’Keeffe discussed CHILL’s founding, the structure of the two-day event, and how CHILL’s formula delivers impact.


Before founding CHILL, O’Keeffe led Cisco’s Services Innovation Center. According to O’Keeffe, she leveraged design thinking and hackathons to field ideas from employees throughout the company.

Many of the best ideas came from employees who were engineers, or other professionals early in their careers, O’Keeffe explained: “[O]ften they were closer to the customers than…senior leadership.”

While hackathons and innovation activities generated new ideas, O’Keeffe says that innovators often found themselves endlessly pitching ideas to different senior leaders to win support. After several rounds of feedback and edits, the final version looked much different than the original idea.

“[I]t was a heartbreaking process. … [B]y the end of it, the innovator is exhausted, the idea doesn’t look anywhere near [what it] used to [look like], and something gets added to a future list of products, instead of really realizing the [initial] vision of the innovator,” O’Keeffe says.

O’Keeffe says that she designed CHILL to bring senior leadership, innovators, and end users closer together, by physically placing them in the same room. At the end of the process, O’Keeffe says innovators and senior leadership know that their solutions will be well-received in the “real world.”

“[You want] on-the-spot innovation investors to be really confident that everybody’s voice that would be needed to sign off on an innovation, that they’re there in the room,” O’Keeffe says. “[T]hey’re smiling [and] they’re clapping.”


According to O’Keeffe, the time spent preparing for CHILL is integral to the bootcamp’s success. In the months before CHILL, the team identifies the issue area “where all the players have to grow, have to change, or have to participate differently or more collaboratively.” They then begin recruiting a large cohort of organizations that work in that zone.

When tackling the issue of transparency in the supply chain, Cisco worked with Intel, GE, and DB Schenker, a global logistics firm. According to O’Keeffe, “A lot of minerals that are leveraged by the technology industry…are not sourced ethically. … [I]t’s enormously worrisome…that we don’t have [a] clean view all the way back to the mines…”

One successful solution from the bootcamp was “nano-tags,” or devices that could track minerals from the mines until they are used in products.

“I don’t think any one company would have designed a process like that, a project like that,” O’Keeffe says.

Participating in CHILL comes with a price: $200,000 in investment from each participating company before the event begins. O’Keeffe says that this payment buys the company equal rights to intellectual property, projects, prototypes, and other outputs created by CHILL.

“To innovate with [Cisco]…through my work, it needs to be peer-to-peer, which means we both have to have dollars on the table,” O’Keeffe says. “It’s not a truly egalitarian, shoulder-to-shoulder situation unless we’re both prepared to invest.”

In order to participate, organizations must also agree to send top decision-makers to participate. “We have a rule within CHILL: if your company needs the blessing of the CFO or the CEO or Bob from accounting in order to be successful, then the CEO, and the CFO, and Bob from accounting have to be there in the room at the time,” O Keeffe says.

Participating companies are “aware that our own CEO is likely to be there,” O’Keeffe says. “The minute people start hearing that you have SVPs, and you’ve got EVPs, and you got your CEO coming, there’s a beautiful kind of peer aspect to that.”

However, O’Keeffe says bringing together top leaders for weeks on end is “impossible.” So CHILL condensed its timeline to 48 hours.


Participants at CHILL

At the beginning of CHILL, participants meet for dinner, gathering around a table with members of their new team. This initial meeting creates an opportunity to share perspectives and brainstorm ideas.

“[W]e often get really breakthrough moments over dinner,” O’Keeffe says. “[A] lot of the teams sort of throw out [initial ideas], and start again at 9 p.m. at the end of the first day.”

The next day, they walk into a large arena. Arranged like a donut, build crews sit in the center of the circle with project teams on the outer edge.  According to O’Keeffe, two hours in, participants meet their first round of end-users. They then meet with four to five more rounds of end-users throughout the day — getting feedback and reshaping their ideas along the way.

“We’re constantly pushing these leaders to stop talking, and start building…and have their concept tested by users,” O’Keeffe says.

At the end of the first day, participants brief build teams, which work overnight to create a prototype of their ideas. The process ends on day two at 5:30 p.m., when teams pitch their ideas to a more senior group of stakeholders.

“That’s often when a lot of CEOs of the participating organizations arrive to see the pitches,” O’Keeffe says. “[And] folks on the teams themselves are so senior that they…have the budget to make the appropriate funding decisions without much outside support. … [So] leads on those teams [often say,] ‘This is what I’m doing, this is what its gonna cost me, we start on Monday, off we go.’”


According to O’Keeffe, inviting users to give in-person feedback during CHILL helps the team better understand users’ needs.

When one CHILL lab session focused on cancer care, O’Keeffe’s team invited patients, doctors, and nurses. When cancer patients arrived at the arena in person, they were often unexpectedly accompanied by their at-home caregivers.

“Almost invariably, when you’re that sick there’s another person there — a spouse, a partner, a parent — that is part of your day-to-day journey. And we hadn’t explicitly thought about that category,” O’Keeffe says. “So almost by accident, this incredible group of people who are so deeply affected and touched by every decision that’s made in the life of that cancer patient are right in the room.”

One startup that emerged from the lab focused not only on patients, but also on the caregivers helping to manage a loved one’s illness.

The digital health app, CircleOf, “helps caregivers and patients organize and mobilize their family, friends, and co-workers into an on-demand care community.” According to the app’s website, users can coordinate doctor appointments, navigate employer health benefits, and connect to services that can ease the treatment process.

“If we had interviewed those end users on the phone,…we never would have met this entirely additional group of folks that are touched throughout this journey,” O’Keeffe says.


Idea challenges and hackathons can often fizzle out because of too little follow-up. However, getting buy-in from the top allows projects from CHILL to keep moving forward after the program has concluded. Once the bootcamp is over,  O’Keeffe says, the CHILL team hands over control to project leaders when an idea becomes a startup.

However, O’Keeffe  sets follow-up meetings before CHILL ever starts to ensure that they can help ideas overcome common roadblocks. Her team also aids with intellectual property and scheduling for internal initiatives during their early stages.

“[W]e’ve immediately lined up a lot of these post-Living Lab activities…about who is the project leader from each of these different [corporations], what is the legal arrangement we are going to pursue together, what are we gonna do for the next quarter to get to the next milestone?” she says. “[T]he longer that process takes to calendar and schedule, the greater the risk we have of an idea entering the valley of death.”

CHILL’s next bootcamp, in 2019, will focus on the future of work and “Industry 4.0,” or automation in manufacturing.


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