How Are Innovation Labs in Silicon Valley Changing?

October 14, 2020

There is a video of Tiger Woods, where in response to a reporter’s questions on what he had changed to get to the top of his game, he replies, “Nothing, really. I changed my grip a little, and my backswing, stance, and hip rotation.” It wasn’t until he smirked at the end of the video that I realized he had downplayed the extent of his changes — nearly every part of the mechanics of his golf swing was different! To a professional golfer, making adjustments is a normal part of being on top of the game, and so routine that he described them as “nothing.” 

Paul Campbell, Startup Genie

I imagine most innovation leaders have a similar attitude to the highly-dynamic and ambiguous innovation challenges faced each day. They make adjustments to meet the new challenges as easily as Tiger Woods adjusts his swing. Anticipating and adjusting to a dynamic environment is actually a critical success skill for innovation leaders — one they have perfected over the years. It’s a good thing! Those skills come in handy during a crisis. When COVID-19 hit, innovation leaders sprang into action to offer a wide variety of assistance to multiple stakeholders up and down the company ranks.

The Need For Innovators

The first big change is that innovation teams in Silicon Valley are busier than ever responding to executives’ calls for help across the corporation. Their hands are in everything from responding to strategic and operational opportunities, to applying their skills to solve problems, to helping set new directions for innovation, research, and venturing.

Second, almost all corporations with innovation centers in the area have concluded that the number of startups is simply too high to ignore. Even during a pandemic. Meaning that corporate startup collaborations, corporate venture, and M&A activity remain very high today. 

Corporate innovation labs continue to open in Silicon Valley, mandated by CEOs who realize that they need to double down on digital/AI transformation, or recognize that a critical mass of partners and customers exist here. Corporates find themselves spending more time here, and therefore decide it’s time to set up their company’s own lab. 

To be effective, corporations have learned that setting up only one person or function in Silicon Valley is not enough. They’ve added functions like venturing and corporate development, design, R&D, strategy, and innovation to their teams in the Bay Area to create bespoke collaborations with startups. Diverse teams and functions ensure decisions are made locally at the speed of startups. This multi-function approach has been perfected by corporations during the past decade of operating here. With this approach, remote innovation teams are better suited to deliver on corporations’ strategic initiatives. 

Adjusting Your Swing — Remotely

Another change comes in the form of teams strengthening their ties to headquarters remotely. Our suitcases are collecting dust during the pandemic. In the old days, monthly trips to a company’s headquarters to report results, align on objectives, and find new projects were commonplace for remote innovation teams. Moreover, those trips created an opportunity to inject ideas discovered from startup interactions, transmit energy from new connections and opportunities, convey enthusiasm for recent results, affect company culture, and offer new result-producing approaches that corporate peers have tried. 

Since travel is halted, this important communication and alignment practice is at risk. Instead, we Zoom with stakeholders, business leaders, and project teams from afar — innovating ourselves and our communication approaches, including remote pitch events, VC portfolio reviews, operational reviews, and strategy reviews.  

Today, the most important exercise taking place over Zoom is the re-assessing of strategic priorities in light of the pandemic. Now more than ever, innovation teams must know how they can contribute to the company’s business objectives. It’s critical for innovation executives to reframe reactionary directives like “cut the budget” or “focus only on short-term opportunities” to exploring what disruptions expose gaps in their company’s capabilities, technologies, portfolio, markets, and more. If a key technology like AI transformation has failed to get traction, now is the time to push it forward, instead of diverting innovation teams to short-term tactics. 

Finally, innovation labs have a huge impact on company culture, especially now. In a crisis, some companies retrench to their core businesses, minimizing risks no matter their origin or potential contribution to future revenue generation. As one executive of a very old company said recently, “We survived two world wars, we’ll survive this!” For many, going into survival mode is the right response to a crisis, but survival is not the goal for innovators. Innovation executives see the crisis as a catalyst for change. Their motto: “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” Innovative companies look to increase agility and speed to pursue new initiatives and customer-centricity as a means to out-maneuver competitors. 

The Challenges of Innovation Centers

Clearly, innovation leaders are facing challenges during the pandemic that most likely existed before COVID-19, and are likely to remain for a while. An example of a growing issue during the pandemic is “not invented here” syndrome/resistance to open innovation, as companies struggle with assigning resources to internal versus external innovation initiatives. 

Another challenge is that innovation centers remain a political football in the C-suite. A recent survey showed that innovators in large companies see the CEO as an aid to innovation, but the C-suite as creators of barriers to innovation. This results in a divided turf, with the CEO and the Chief Innovation Officer on one side, and the rest of the C-suite on the other, which is not sustainable.

Finally, the startups that Silicon Valley is known for poach talented employees, who might have worked at corporations in the past. For the past decade, many innovators and inventors have seen startups as the best path to success. That talent also takes ideas and opportunities with them, leaving corporations to fend for themselves or to develop programs to tap into those startups. 

Despite challenges, many companies are succeeding in harnessing the startup ecosystems here and around the globe to successfully deliver on their innovation strategic intent. Returning to the golf metaphor, the companies with the know-how and stamina to fix their innovation swing get to the top of their game and stand in the winner’s circle, while others watch from the clubhouse.


Paul Campbell is the former Chief Innovation Officer at W.L. Gore & Associates. Currently, he is the Head of Digital Innovation, SV/USA, at British American Tobacco. He is an expert in corporate innovation leadership who has also served as Head of the Silicon Valley Research & Innovation Center for Schneider Electric and as a Senior Vice President at Philips Benelux.

This piece is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.