Inside Target’s Food + Future coLab

By Scott Kirsner |  January 3, 2017

No one would mistake Target’s Food + Future coLAB in Cambridge, Mass., with a typical Target retail location. The bull’s-eye logo is nowhere in evidence, and there’s also not a single parking spot out front, let alone acres of them.

But enter the (non-automatic) glass door and descend an industrial staircase, and you’ve entered into a laboratory where Target is trying to envision the future of its grocery business — and get ahead of changing consumer preferences around food.

The coLAB is a creation of $74 billion Target, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn.; the design and consulting firm IDEO; and the MIT Media Lab, located just a few blocks away. Overseeing the project is Greg Shewmaker, who joined Target as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence in 2015 after stints at Tesco, Staples, and an e-commerce company called 3c Marketlabs.

The idea behind the creation of the coLAB, as Shewmaker explains it, is that “we know less about our food than we ever have at any other time in history. We want to do something about it. I don’t want to go sell more Greek yogurt or healthy products. I want to go do something big, and fix some big problems.”

To get there, in late 2015 the coLAB began to bring in entrepreneurs, students, and even farmers for “makeathon” events that explore different approaches to three key themes that the coLAB focuses on: understanding your food, accessing better food, and trusting your food. Often, a makeathon begins on Monday with experts coming in to give insight into certain food industry issues and concludes on Friday with demos that are open to the public. For the first one, Target received about 300 applications, and invited 100 people to participate.

Several projects, like new approaches to food labeling and a handheld scanning device, now called Illuminate, for testing the freshness and nutrient level of produce, have already been tested in a Boston-area Target store. Another project, a self-contained, tabletop growing system dubbed Poly, was displayed at the South by South Lawn event at the White House last October.

“The only parameters [for the coLAB] were, don’t look at things that are next to the core of the business,” Shewmaker says. “Go out there a little bit further.”

The physical coLAB space in Cambridge opened in January. Since then, Target execs including CEO Brian Cornell and Chief Corporate Social Responsibility Officer Laysha Ward have dropped by, as have food scientists, supply chain staffers, and merchandisers. The visitors, Shewmaker says, “are turning out to be our biggest ambassadors. They’re going back there and telling everyone, ‘Hey, you’ve got to be part of this.’ It’s not a movement yet, but those ambassadors are starting to go back and spread the message.” Shewmaker says the coLAB team produces regular video clips that are shared internally throughout the company, and there’s a coLAB Twitter account as well.

After just over a year of activity in Cambridge, the coLab seems to be gaining momentum. Intel recently signed on as a new member, and Shewmaker says that the group will be moving to a bigger, higher-profile space in Cambridge sometime in 2017.

Senior execs, he says, see the coLAB as a “new blueprint for innovation” — and one that is more transparent, and more tied to the academic and entrepreneurial ecosystems, than traditional research and development divisions. “The idea of this is that we can do this better than any one big company on its own, faster than a startup, and light years faster than academia,” he says.