In this episode of Innovation Answered, we wanted to know, “What distinguishes innovation labs that deliver major impact from those that flop?” To get best practices, InnoLead’s Kaitlin Milliken sat down with Linda Elkins, Chief Technical Officer of W.L. Gore’s Silicon Valley Innovation Center. Frankie James, Managing Director of General Motors’ Advanced Technology, and Jeffrey Welser, Vice President at IBM Research, share insights from our annual Impact conference. InnoLead CEO Scott Kirsner and Planbox Chief Customer Officer Sara Husk discuss how labs can pivot in light of COVID-19.
- Watch Frankie James and Jeffrey Welser’s full conversation from the mainstage.
- Take a look inside Gore’s Silicon Valley Innovation Center.
This episode is sponsored by Planbox, the number one ranked innovation management solution provider by Forrester. Planbox is the most flexible and comprehensive AI-powered, agile innovation management platform and service. Their team helps empower enterprise-wide continuous improvement, corporate venturing, data scouting, digital transformation, and innovation systems. Planbox can help you innovate consistently and experiment cost-effectively while managing your entire innovation pipeline and portfolio. For more information visit, planbox.com.
Linda Elkins: Understanding that the creation of an innovation center is a journey.
Sara Husk: How is it that people can stay connected to leadership?
Frankie James: Everything catches on first in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.
Jeffrey Welser: About a third of our research, we actually do with clients.
Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead.
In this episode, we wanted to know: What distinguishes innovation labs that deliver major impact from those that flop?
Scouting new ideas, evaluating them, prototyping the most promising ones, and devising a roll-out plan — that can be really tough to do for employees when they’re too close to the day-to-day needs of the core business. In order to tap into ecosystems outside their walls, bring fresh talent, and get some distance from today’s business pressures, many companies have created dedicated labs, separate from headquarters. These outposts can include prototyping shops, co-working spaces for startups, and room for events.
Different labs have different goals. Some focus on ideas that may plug in to today’s products to enhance them. Others look for opportunities that might be five years out on the horizon.
During our annual Impact conference in October 2019, two innovation execs talked about the structure of their Silicon Valley labs. For Jeffrey Welser, a Vice President at IBM Research, the tech services giant decided to keep the R separate from the D in R&D, putting pure research in its own place:
Jeffrey Welser: So it is interesting because IBM has chosen to continue to maintain a separate research division. So it is separate from our development labs, and they do it because we try to let it have a little bit more leeway. There is discussion about funding getting cut on a regular basis, which happens in our development groups all the time. But research, they maintain a fairly steady stream of investment…
Kaitlin Milliken: At GM, traditional research and development activity and newer innovation programs all exist under the same umbrella. Frankie James, the managing director of General Motors’ Advanced Technology Office, explains.
Frankie James: We’ve always reported to the head of GM R&D. The woman who is the head of R&D is now also the head of global innovation, which is actually a separate team at GM. But it’s really nice to have her being in charge of both, because it gives us a way to connect with the innovation team.
Kaitlin Milliken: But these initiatives all have the mission of identifying new ideas that can drive future growth for the companies. Both Frankie and Jeff shared a few best practices that can help teams achieve that mission. First off, no matter where your initiative is located, be sure to encourage staffers to get out into the community. That can help you tap into emergent trends and validate your ideas.
Jeffrey Welser: One of the things that we find to be really important is that, our research labs, we require our researchers to be out at conferences actually participating — whether they’re giving papers or participating in papers. We also have about a third of our research we actually do with clients, where we have a project we’re doing with them. Even though it’s far out research POC, it’s not something that we’re probably going to make a product out of or they’re going to make a product out of. But that kind of market validation and that kind of input coming from the outside-in constantly, it’s amazing how many times after that you change direction in what you’re doing and actually end up going faster in a direction you didn’t think you were supposed to be heading in.
Kaitlin Milliken: Another tip: keep an eye on first movers. Silicon Valley outposts, and labs in other hot spots around the world, have unique insights into the desires and demands of early adopters. That helps teams think about what new trends will catch on in other markets.
Frankie James: One of the things that you have to look at is what parts of the world are moving first in an area and decide if you think the rest of the world is gonna come along. And that’s another reason to be here in Silicon Valley. We had people hopping onto [electric rental] scooters before a lot of other cities and states got them. … Everything catches on first in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Is it really going to take off in other parts of the country? We had to think about, “Well okay, maybe it will and maybe it won’t” then watch it go. Being in a first mover culture out here in Silicon Valley gives you some insight into what might happen.
Kaitlin Milliken: Frankie and Jeff shared their perspectives from the main stage at Impact. But we wanted to take a deeper dive into the inner workings of innovation outposts.
To discover more best practices for running an innovation lab, we went to Silicon Valley to talk with Linda Elkins, Chief Technical Officer at W.L. Gore’s Innovation Center. We’ll be back with Linda after this break.
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Kaitlin Milliken: And we’re back with Linda Elkins. Linda is the Chief Technical Officer at W.L. Gore’s Innovation Center in Santa Clara California. She’s spent almost twenty years at the materials manufacturing company, best known for its Gore-tex fabric. In her role, she oversees all activities at the Silicon Valley outpost.
So to kick us off, can you tell us a little bit about your role as head of the Gore Innovation Center and what your day to day looks like?
Linda Elkins: In my role, I provide leadership to the Innovation Center. Our mission is to create and accelerate growth for Gore by working with external partners. So we work with a lot of our internal divisions, our functions, our core technology group, and try to understand what their gaps are and what opportunities for growth are that we can leverage our ecosystem in Silicon Valley and our partners, really just to help enable them accelerate their learnings.
Kaitlin Milliken: Great. And that’s a really interesting mission. And I wanted to just hear about your journey, and how you got to head and lead this innovation center?
Linda Elkins: Sure. So I’ve actually been at Gore almost 20 years. So I started as an engineer in the Medical Products Division, and spent about 15 or so years within medical and engineering and technical leadership roles. About five years ago, Gore had an initiative to reinvigorate our innovation, specifically external innovation. So I took a commitment to create Gore’s first innovation center out here in Silicon Valley.
The first two years I spent, really understanding the ecosystem, designing and building out the space understanding how other corporations have set up their ecosystems here. And then we opened our innovation center in May of 2017, at which point I transitioned into, you know, a leadership role. Mildly ironic it was still just me at that point. But then we brought into two people in August, and started to grow the team for the Innovation Center at that time.
Kaitlin Milliken: So, launching a new innovation center, what are some of the takeaways from your experience developing the idea?
Linda Elkins: One thing that really hit home for me, the willingness of people to engage and help. There’s a great network of folks that lead or are involved with corporate outposts or innovation centers here in Silicon Valley. So part of my research was to reach out. I probably connected in with 30 or so innovation centers and spent an hour understanding what was their KPIs? What was their mission? How do they want to approach it? And then essentially took all of that information with the understanding of Gore and who we are as a company, and determined what our approach was and how we wanted to move forward.
It’s certainly been a learning process and we have learned over the two-and-a-half years that we’ve been hoping and really adapt To the way we are approaching and moving forward. But in kicking it off, it was really that external piece, as well as working with our internal capabilities team to help design the space so that it really represented who Gore is, as a company, you know, and how we can have an impact.
Kaitlin Milliken: I’d like to talk a little bit more about partnerships. What makes a good partnership? And what are the really helpful things that both sides can do to work together?
Linda Elkins: Sure. So I’m gonna maybe splinter that a little bit into two. So I think there’s two types of partnerships. You know, there’s the partnerships, we the Innovation Center may form with an external group, such as the startup, but then I would also call the work we do with our internal business units and functions a partnership. There can be times where we are there as a startup or an external group, ourselves and the businesses involved all together. You know, what we’re really looking for, especially to say if we take an external startup in ourselves is we’re looking for a win-win. What is the value to the startup and what’s the value to Gore, and how are we mutually working to achieve those goals?
So whenever we do that we’ll set right the scope of work to understand what the deliverables are for each of those two groups. To be honest, it’s not that differently internally, right? We want to say how can we help this group or this function or this division, accelerate their learning, and we will write what we call a project concept, so that we can outline what are the deliverables and what are we taking on, and what support are they providing.
Kaitlin Milliken: Are there any communication tips that you think other innovators should know about and implement in their organizations?
Linda Elkins: You know, a lot of it is really making sure you’re having a two-way conversation, making sure you’re listening to the other, you know, to understand that what the division is looking for and the nuances of that, that you can pick up on and say, “Well, we heard this in Silicon Valley recently. We can bring this to the table.” So really engaging in that two way conversation and understanding what their needs are and how we can have an impact, right? The biggest thing is about how we can have an impact and help with them, help them achieve their goals, and accelerate their learnings.
Kaitlin Milliken: Are there any pieces of advice that you would give, for folks that work in an innovation team about either getting started or staying close to the company’s core mission,
Linda Elkins: From an external perspective, I would say, leverage your peers. Realize the openness of the community out here and the willingness of people to engage. Go to events, you know, like InnoLead field studies, when you’re starting out. When I was starting the Innovation Center, attending a field study was hugely valuable because you get to see other folks’ space and how they leverage the space. But you get to understand what their KPIs and missions and talk to people that are doing it every day. So absolutely leverage the network and the peer groups out here in the innovation type space.
From an internal perspective, what I would say is, set the expectations. Creating an innovation center and doing something new in your corporation is a journey. It’s going to take time. Try and set those expectations early. Don’t establish unrealistic metrics in the first year, but no that you’re gonna have to determine what works best for your company.
Kaitlin Milliken: Great. And my final question is more about career advice. Is there any or are there any tips or things that you’ve learned that really stuck with you throughout your career so far?
Linda Elkins: You know, one thing that my leader had said that really resonated was that “activity is not impact.” So, you know, we at the Innovation Center, when we first got going, we would be going to all these events, doing all this activity, and we were exhausted, but it wasn’t necessarily having an impact to the business and we needed to make the association between those two. And that’s why today when we take on projects, we make sure there’s a support, the handshake before we take something on. So I think that was one lesson that really resonated in terms of making sure that we are achieving what we need to for Gore, as well as contributing to the ecosystem out here.
Kaitlin Milliken: The way innovation labs operate has changed in a major way since we recorded our initial interview with Linda. Now labs often remain empty, with staff moving innovative ideas forward and even building prototypes at home. We called Linda back for an update.
So to get us started, can you talk about how your team has been affected by COVID-19 and some of the changes you had to put in place as a response to this situation?
Linda Elkins: Gore has taken a number of steps primarily to protect the health and safety of our associates, to continue our central manufacturing and move product forward. From the Innovation Center perspective, our team is all working remotely. We are not using our prototyping lab or having obviously in person engagements or meetings with other folks which has certainly affected the team. But we are able to be productive and continue on with work and explore and landscape new areas. And understand opportunities through using virtual virtual means and connections.
Kaitlin Milliken: And you mentioned that you don’t have access to the prototyping space that you typically have. Right now, are you able to do anything to either replace that type of work that you were doing or shift some of it to being virtual in some capacity or has it pretty much all just ceased?
Linda Elkins: When a lot of the restrictions were placed in March across the country, that was right when we had an application out to bring startups into our lab, so that they could work with Gore on areas of interest, mutual interest to Gore and the startups. So we’ve put that application obviously, on hold, as we’re not bringing startups into the space right now. That will resume as soon as we’re able to use the lab. We’ll get that right up and running.
From our personal teams perspective, we’ve shifted to doing a lot more exploratory work. So understanding, you know, if we’re looking for a specific mechanical component researching universities or startups that are in that space with time, once we’ve exhausted all kind of the research and the virtual applications, they’ll certainly be an impact of not being able to use the lab. But we’re hoping that from a company in a country perspective, we’re able to put some practices in place that allow us to safely get back in the lab, both start working independently in Gore to be creating prototypes and trying things out, but also start working with some of our partners, again.
Kaitlin Milliken: Something that we’re seeing in a lot of the innovation spaces and lab teams are that priorities are changing and shifting. Have any of your team’s priorities changed? And are you focusing on anything that might be different than before?
Linda Elkins: I should say, independently of COVID-19, our team was really looking at our strategy for the Innovation Center on how we can have the greatest impact for Gore. So we were doing that independently. And it actually led us towards some projects where we’re trying to understand some new growth spaces for Gore and some new opportunities for Gore, which actually lends itself to do a fair bit more remote work to explore those spaces.
I think another one of the big downsides for us is that the casual interactions or the happenstance meetings that you would have at events that now just essentially don’t happen, because you more have to have targeted interactions or introductions. You don’t just generally run into people that can be a huge value and meet a number of folks. So it makes it a little challenging from the interaction standpoint and exploration of new spaces, but we’re still able to explore these new spaces, look at new growth opportunities for Gore, understand where technology plays a role — all remotely. So that’s been good.
Kaitlin Milliken: I know that manufacturing some components of Remain essential. It’s not an industry that has been put on hold completely like some of the other ones that we’re seeing. But Have there been any industry shifts?
Linda Elkins: Companies that happen to make a decision on it, how they are preserving manufacturing? And if we’re able to maintain, for example, research and development in a safe way while maintaining manufacturing, how do we first and foremost, take care of the associates so that they feel safe, they feel supported, they’re working in an environment that is good, but allows them to continue to still make products.
I think one of the things in manufacturing that we will all need to follow is revenue and sales of products. So, you know, are they critical infrastructure products? They’re essential, but are there sales? So just kind of understanding that dynamic across the board will be interesting.
Kaitlin Milliken: What advice do you have for other teams, or things that you’ve seen work that are running a lab or working in a lab during this very uncertain remote period of time?
Linda Elkins: Having planned meetings where we’re interacting, and we’re interacting across the enterprise, because I think what we lose with this remote dynamic is the, again, even the casual interactions within Gore, which have been hugely valuable for us to realize the impact we’re having. We’ve also been looking at projects that we always seem to have a hard time to get to. So we’re redoing our internal and external websites, and we’re getting those up and running. And there’s a number of things that didn’t never quite got to the top of the radar screen but are great remote projects. So trying to prioritize and then plan for how we can safely get back in a lab and an interaction environment, you know, as quickly as possible.
Kaitlin Milliken: One of the things people are worried about Is the long term economic repercussions and sort of entering into a recessionary period after all of this. What are some ways that labs can demonstrate their value that way, they’re less likely to kind of be the first thing that gets cut or closed if the financial belt needs to tighten?
Linda Elkins: Growth is always going to be important. And for any company, so, you know, the hope is that the company would be able to sustain those teams working on growth on new opportunities. One thing that we have looked at is how is the world going to change and how is the economic environment going to change as a result of this pandemic? And then, are there opportunities for Gore? Is the influence of AI and machine learning going to be stronger? Right? Is the need for 5G or how’s the need for materials going to change?
So like, looking at how the world is going to change and trying to be at the forefront of that, you know, puts you in a position where you can have a huge impact for your company when we’re looking back at at the phase where we’re starting to ramp up and, you know, get back to as people have called it the new normal.
Kaitlin Milliken: So avoid innovation theater and make sure the activities at your innovation lab have a positive effect on the core business. That’s important during periods of disruption and during times of relative calm.
We know a lot of our focus so far has been on the Bay Area. And for many industries, Silicon Valley has a lot of startup activity. But we wanted to gather advice relevant to everyone thinking about how labs and the teams that staff them can create positive results for their company — wherever they’re located.
To do that, InnoLead CEO Scott Kirsner hopped on a Zoom call with Sara Husk. Sara is the Chief Customer Officer at Planbox, an agile innovation platform designed to help teams manage their ideas. Planbox is also a sponsor of today’s episode. During the conversation Sara shared best practices and tips for teams who had to shift priorities due to COVID-19.
Scott Kirsner: The first thing I would ask is just what do you think sets innovation labs up for success? And are there some that that you’ve worked with that you think are role models?
Sara Husk: I think where companies kind of get confused is that innovation doesn’t equal creativity. It’s that innovation really allows creativity to flourish when you have a great innovation process. So some of the things that they have in common are things like a clear vision and purpose. They’re aligned with the strategy, metrics and governance. Really, that’s a game changer for the innovation labs, I think. It’s like they owe the business an outcome, and so when that happens, it’s really interesting to see how much more successful they are.
Some of the best ones really are great at marketing their program. And what I mean by that is, you know, they share all kinds of stories. They make sure that they include cool new technology, but they also include things like what’s going on in operations? Or how do we do things that are new and interesting in finance? Or you know, those kinds of things that people don’t think of, but then they really network internally and share those stories wisely.
The other thing is really staffing, they they seem to have a good amount of staff, the right amount of staff, to be able to actually complete all the work that needs to be done, whether it’s the technology scouting, the prototyping, the marketing that they get a chance to Do managing that whole internal, that really that whole internal ecosystem that really seems to set them apart.
Scott Kirsner: One of the things we’ve seen when there isn’t much staffing is that you kind of wind up with this Disneyland space, a showcase that maybe he has the 3d printer and it has the VR goggles, but nothing happens there. Right? It’s just for tours.
Sara Husk: That lack of staffing, but also that lack of connection of what they owe the business, those clear outcomes and metrics that really makes a difference for success versus not being successful.
Scott Kirsner: Do you think labs are gonna have different priorities or different focuses in 2020?
Sara Husk: With some of the things that are going on in the world right now, we’ve really seen a shift of innovation labs, really focusing on the core. We’ve also seen an interesting shift in transformation. You know, so with the coronavirus this year, everybody’s business has really changed. And so people are kind of going back to some of the fundamentals like, how do we get that voice of the customer? How do we stay connected with the customer to understand what’s going on right now? How do we think about improving things for everyone? So really that “how do we maintain that core business?”
And then there are definitely some businesses that with an inability to be physically face to face, have really got to change some things. And so that’s why we were seeing some of the transformational pieces. If you think about groups that often provide face to face, executive training, project management training, those kinds of things. They’re no longer able to do that. And so it’s like everything suddenly has to get online and online today. So that’s a big shift we’re seeing and of course in the healthcare space, with people not being able to be face to face as much everybody is exploring a lot of different options and technologies and startups and those kinds of things, and it’s happening pretty quickly.
Scott Kirsner: Yeah, it’s interesting. We were just talking to some corporate innovators recently, who were suddenly very interested in software platforms, and, you know, the digital way of supporting innovation, digital approaches to supporting it. When a year or two ago, you know, there was a fixation on physical space, and how do you design a physical space that feels different from our traditional environment? I guess what would you say about software that can help innovation teams, whether they’re working in a lab or not? The way they’re using software that can help them deliver results and maybe communicate results?
Sara Husk: I think if you think about the software that’s out there, there are things that you want to think about. So how do you support that kind of end to end innovation management approach? How do you manage the ecosystem, whether it is internal, like we’re talking about and share stories and make sure that everybody can participate and contribute. Or how do you also manage external ecosystems? So things like tech scouting, and what happens when we want to partner up with somebody or those types of things?
And then, of course, there are also tools out there that really help with concept implementation. And so I think you really got to look at all those types of things. But you know, there are a lot of ways that technology can help specifically things like, you know, we were just talking about how do we gather the voice of the customer. If you can have some way to collaborate with your frontline employees right now, to tell you what’s going on with the customers and the clients. Then you are able to quickly address those issues. You know, if you’ve got a system of record and you can do something like, “Let’s see what’s in the pipeline right now, is there anything that we can accelerate? Is there anything that we should accelerate based on where we are right now?”
Scott Kirsner: The other thing I’m curious about is like, you know, we definitely have seen companies where they say the innovation lab should be at headquarters. You know, we want the senior executives to be able to pop in and circulate through others who say, “No, it needs to be far from headquarters. You don’t want to be pulled into too many meetings. You need some distance, maybe you need access to a different kind of talent pool.” Do you feel like one of those is more likely to succeed or fail? Or do you feel like they’re both kind of, you know, both valid ways to approach it?
Sara Husk: You know, I think they’re probably both valid ways to approach it. I think what the opportunity is right now is with everything changing so quickly, how is it that people can stay connected to leadership? Doesn’t mean that you have to be in the same space or right there. It just means, as a group of innovators, you need to understand and proactively offer solutions for how the business is changing.
This has definitely up-ended people’s supply chains and business models and those kinds of things. So as long as you can stay connected on, “What do we need to solve the issues now and continue to add value back into the business?” I think that’s really the opportunity for communication and those kinds of things right now. And I think as long as innovation labs can do that, I think that will really continue to prove the value for all innovation labs.
Scott Kirsner: And maybe just one last question I would throw out, which is if we hypothesize that 2020 is a year when any kind of an Innovation Initiative, whether it’s a lab or startup engagement program or corporate venture capital, what have you, is going to be under a lot of scrutiny. What advice would you give to innovators for, you know, for surviving that scrutiny and and you know, sort of responding positively to that scrutiny,
Sara Husk: Innovation and innovators are really in a unique position to offer a lot of help and support and value in this time. I mean, if you really think about it, the innovation teams have so many tools at their disposal, whether it’s a you know, a software tool, a framework, like design thinking, any of those types of things. People need fast ways to think about things differently. The innovation teams are typically, you know, loaded heavily with creative problem solvers, people who can rapidly prototype. There’s so many ways to add value. I think it’s just potentially, shift the focus from those, you know, “What’s new? And what’s next?” to “How do we morph the current business to make sure that it survives the current environment.” And then I think that gives you an opportunity as well to really work side by side with everybody in the company. And I think that long term, you know, the price is too high, but I think long term will really help innovation programs and the business to understand the value of those kinds of frameworks and tools and techniques. So I think, I think there can be a kind of a silver lining out of some of this anyways.
Scott Kirsner: That’s a really nice optimistic note to end on. I just want to say thanks, Sara, for being part of the podcast.
Sara Husk: You bet. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it, you guys.
Kaitlin Milliken: Even though innovation labs may be removed from the core business, during tough times it’s especially important that these groups provide real value to the parent company. Flexibility, and shifting priorities appropriately, can help your team prove their worth.
You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Additional reporting was provided by our CEO and Editor, Scott Kirsner. Molli DeRosa, our intern, helped us out during the production process. Special thanks to Frankie James, Jeffery Welser, Linda Elkins, and Sara Husk for sharing their insights. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you get your podcasts. You can also get access to bonus content at innovationleader.com/podcast. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you soon.
Special thanks to Planbox for sponsoring this episode. We can all agree, as innovators, that investing in moonshots and quick wins are an essential strategy. That’s why many innovation labs have been created over the past decades — we’re not only talking about physical labs, but online innovation labs as well. In fact, online innovation labs are being used by most Fortune 500 organizations now more than ever, because virtual work is widely accepted and embraced. Online innovation labs are highly engaging and are a valuable collaboration tool for an organization’s entire innovation ecosystem.
Building and maintaining meaningful engagement between employees, strategic partners and customers will allow your organization to discover the best opportunities to focus on. This engagement can also help identify emerging tech and trends, develop new solutions, and make more informed decisions that ultimately create mutually beneficial business outcomes.
Planbox has successfully completed over 400 deployments and realized over $10 billion in return on investment. They’ve worked with many innovation labs for customers including, Honeywell, Great-West Life, Sun Life Financial, Whirlpool, Cargill, and more. Using Planbox as your single system of record for innovation allows you to capitalize on the best, strategically, aligned ideas. Visit planbox.com for more information.