How Cisco Brings Multiple Companies Together to Innovate

By Kaitlin Milliken |  February 12, 2019

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 soaring Roman arches during the 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 InnoLead, O’Keeffe discussed CHILL’s founding, the structure of the two-day event, and how CHILL’s formula delivers impact.

Designing CHILL

Kate O’Keeffe, founder of CHILL

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

But while innovation activities generated new ideas, O’Keeffe says that innovators often found themselves endlessly pitching to different senior leaders to win support. After several rounds of “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…and something gets added to a future list of products, instead of really realizing the [initial] vision of the innovator,” O’Keeffe says.

She says that she designed CHILL explicitly to bring senior leadership, innovators, and end-users closer together, by physically placing them in the same room. 

“[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.”

The Building Blocks of CHILL

According to O’Keeffe, 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.

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…shoulder-to-shoulder situation unless we’re both prepared to invest.”

In order to participate, organizations must also agree to send top decision-makers. “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,” O’Keeffe says.

Participating companies are “aware that our own CEO is likely to be there,” she adds. “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 condenses its timeline to 48 hours.

The 48 Hour Drill

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.

Participants at CHILL

“[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—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, who 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 [often]…have the budget to make the appropriate funding decisions. … [So] leads on those teams [often say,] ‘This is what I’m doing, this is what it’s gonna cost me, we start on Monday, off we go.'”

The Power of the End-User

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

When CHILL focused on cancer care, O’Keeffe invited patients, doctors, and nurses. When cancer patients arrived at the arena in person, many were unexpectedly accompanied by their at-home caregivers.

“[W]hen you’re that sick, there’s another person there—a spouse, a partner, a parent—that is part of your day-to-day journey,” O’Keeffe says. “If we had interviewed those end-users on the phone…we never would have met this entirely [different] group of folks.”

As a result, one startup that emerged from the lab focused not only on patients, but also on the caregivers that help them. The digital app, CircleOf, helps cancer patients and their loved ones coordinate doctor appointments, navigate employer health benefits, and connect to all sorts of auxiliary services. 

Initially, CircleOf CEO Michael Jordan recalls that his CHILL team was given a broad, somewhat vague mandate: providing cancer patients with a way to receive information. 

“For most executives at the time, the focus was AI, predictive analytics, and machine learning,” he says. “We were thinking [that] you would put the medical records into an algorithm, and out will come sort of an optimal cancer treatment plan for that patient.”

But through the CHILL process, Jordan’s team saw how the patient experience varied based on the number of caregivers involved, and their access to different sources of information. 

“[We then said,] ‘How do you build a product that democratizes that experience, so that everyone gets the non-clinical support they need…to make good decisions about [their care]?'” Jordan says. “We started with AI…and we ended with something that’s almost a social caregiving network. … [CHILL] leads you to the truth, not the buzzword everyone is doing at the moment.”

Learning from CHILL

In 2016, Community Health Network, an Indianapolis-based healthcare system, sent its CEO and six team members to CHILL’s bootcamp on improving cancer care. Vice President of Innovation Pete Turner said his team wound up incorporating learnings from CHILL into their own innovation program, Community Launchpad. Community Health Network is also an equity shareholder in the startup CircleOf.  

InnoLead asked Turner to share the biggest takeaways from his CHILL experience.

“[Here’s] the two big things we learned. [One was] the…impact of co-creation in healthcare particularly. … [B]ringing a multitude of people…and companies [together] to solve a common, bleeding-in-the-neck pain was something that we’re not historically [used to].  And we walked away from [CHILL] saying, ‘Wow, we really need to expand our ability to solve problems within co-creation.’ …

[The second] is the power of the consumer being in the room… [We] really incorporated that at Launchpad, [asking,] ‘How can we involve the consumer in the entire process?’ It provides insight and a perspective that could never be measured. …

The lab is one thing. Taking the learnings, and ideas, and the possibilities from the lab and converting those…to generate impact…we have no better case study in Community Launchpad than CHILL and CircleOf.”

Life after CHILL

Idea challenges and hackathons can often fizzle out after teams go back to their day jobs. However, O’Keeffe sets follow-up meetings before CHILL ever starts to help avoid that fate. 

“[W]e’ve immediately lined up a lot of these post-Living Lab activities” she says. “The longer that process takes to…schedule, the greater the risk we have of…entering the valley of death.”

During these follow-up meetings, project leaders have to refine the business model, test assumptions, work out intellectual property, and decide how to bring the idea to fruition—as an internal initiative or an independent startup. If teams build their idea into a startup, they must also pick leadership for the new company. 

Jordan was chosen to be CircleOf’s CEO during this follow-up process. (Jordan had previously been working as a CHILL “Distinguished Entrepreneur.”) 

After CHILL, Jordan says, startups must also hustle to secure additional funding. “You’re able to raise money from the partners [involved in the lab], and that gives you a good chunk of seed money,” he said, “but it’s still up to the team to get enough traction to go out…and secure [more funding].”

Not all of the lab’s partners remain engaged after startups have gained their footing. According to Jordan, Walgreens, one initial partner, has become less involved in CircleOf. Meanwhile, his team has weekly governance calls with Community Health Network. Cisco is also one of CircleOf’s biggest customers. 

According to Jordan, CHILL excels in marshalling the initial resources and support that can make the innovation process smoother, even after the bootcamp has concluded.

“[CHILL] took…product development, customer development, and market research, and [condensed it],” he says. “If I had come up with the idea for CircleOf on my own, it would have taken six months to a year to get to where we had gotten in just 48 hours.” 

The CHILL initiative recently moved into Cisco’s engineering division; it had previously been part of the company’s customer experience organization. According to O’Keefe, this shift has better enabled her teams to develop ideas after a Living Lab has concluded. 

This article was updated to include interviews with CircleOf’s Michael Jordan and Community Launchpad’s Pete Turner in May of 2019.