Meet the 2021 Impact Award Winners

October 26, 2021

Each year, InnoLead presents the Impact Awards to companies that are leveraging innovation, technology, and R&D initiatives to achieve concrete business results.

Typically, we present the awards at our annual conference for corporate innovators, Impact. But 2021 requires some flexibility. Our big in-person gathering isn’t taking place until May 2022 in New York City, and while you’ll have the opportunity to meet some of the winners then, we’ll be honoring them online on November 16th, with a live webcast that will invite them to share advice with others about delivering tangible results in a big organization.

There are three categories of awards: Impact Awards, for projects that have already shown quantitative impact; Best New Initiative, given to programs that are new and promising, but may not yet be producing the same level of metrics or business outcomes; and Most Valuable Player, for team members deserving of recognition. (You can see the complete list of finalists here.) 

Thanks to everyone who submitted, and our wonderful group of judges, listed below. Stay tuned to our email newsletter or social feeds to be notified when we start accepting submisions for next year’s awards!

(Note: While we’ve edited the descriptions of each project below, the award submitters supplied the initial write-ups and data points related to their projects.)

Impact Award Winners:

OTP Bank

Initiative: Robotic Process Automation to Tackle COVID-19 Measures

The Robotic Process Automation Competence Center (RPA CC) was set up in 2019 within OTP LAB, the Innovation Hub of OTP Bank. OTP Bank is headquartered in Budapest, Hungary, and serves customers in nine other countries. By the beginning of 2020, the center created OTP Bank’s first digital workers, or software robots. These robots fully imitate human interaction with the computer, and are used to automate business processes without requiring huge IT development projects; they also enable colleagues to focus on the value-added, more creative parts of their jobs.

In March 2020, the Hungarian government announced a new measure to tackle the growing financial crisis generated by COVID-19. The government issued a moratorium for several types of outstanding loans, which was “opt-in” by default, meaning the clients who wanted to “opt-out” (and continue making loan payments) had to request this. Hundreds of thousands of requests started to come in via unauthorized channels (such as OTP’s website), so authentication had to be done case-by-case, based on the personal information provided by the clients. 

The OTP LAB Innovation Hub in Budapest.

To process the huge number of requests coming in in such a short timeframe, the bank would have needed months — and to allocate 80 employees solely to this task. Since the digital workers already had a proven track record, the RPA CC was asked to evaluate the possibility of using robotic process automation for handling these requests. Processing the moratorium opt-out requests meant performing the same low-value tasks repeatedly, so developing and implementing a robot made sense from a business point of view. But the development had to be done in an extremely agile way, in a relatively short time, as new requests started to pile up and the organization could not handle the workload.

After less than four weeks of development and two weeks of testing, the software robot went live. During the 2020 Easter weekend alone, it processed more than 60,000 requests. In the next few weeks, it processed over 150,000 requests. The robot first scans the input in a folder, then identifies the customer. If any customer data differs, the relevant department is informed. After that, if it is required, the robot performs an account check, then the result of the examination is recorded. This project was one of the fastest to create a new process and develop the necessary IT in OTP’s history. And the development of the software robot was already profitable after the first couple of hours, which meant a record return on investment time in the Bank’s history.

In 2020, the robot successfully processed roughly 98 percent of all requests. The overall impact of the project added up to 80 FTEs worth of work saved in a few weeks’ timeframe. With this digitized COVID-19 response, the bank saved colleagues from an unprecedented stressful workload — and significant overtime on the Easter weekend — and ensured that customes’ requests were processed in time.

OTP Lab team members

The initiative also kick-started cultural shifts: it proved to thousands of OTP colleagues that the “digital employees” are here to stay, and will have a massive impact on their work, and clients’ lives, going forward. One fun example story: OTP staffers gave nicknames to the new robot “colleagues,” and also held a fictional birthday party when the robots went live. It also led to other process automation projects, helping OTP to become a more agile, digitized retail bank and maintain its position of market leadership.

“This project clearly had impact in terms of cost savings/efficiency, employees, and loan customers struggling during the pandemic,” wrote judge Jay Gerhart of Atrium Health. “The notion of ‘digital workers’ and the fictional birthday party is really fascinating.”

Reliant, an NRG Company

Initiative: Make It Solar

Reliant, an NRG company, is one of Texas’ largest electricity providers in the state’s highly competitive retail electricity market. By serving customers who run the gamut of age, demographic, lifestyle, and region, it is critical for Reliant to stay at the forefront of “personalizing power.”

More customers in Texas are interested in using solar energy to support the use of renewable energy sources, but many of them are not ready for the upfront costs involved with installing rooftop panels. As Texans embrace the power of the sun, Reliant is interested in advancing solar energy with the new Reliant Make It Solar program. This innovative alternative allows customers to support renewable, solar energy without the need to install panels while keeping their preferred electricity plans. Through the Make It Solar program, Reliant will match a customer’s monthly electricity usage with solar renewable energy certificates (RECs). These RECs show that renewable energy has been generated and sent to the electric grid equal to a customer’s usage.

Customers can log in to their online Reliant account and see how they have reduced their carbon emissions – per week, per month and since joining the program. Make It Solar can be added to any qualifying Reliant plan for a flat price of $6.99 per month. Whether Texans live in houses, apartments or condominiums – rented or owned – they can now do their part to support clean energy with Make It Solar.

Make it Solar began with a soft launch in January 2020. Reliant was one of the first retail electricity providers in Texas to offer a renewable add-on product that would allow customers to offset their usage with solar power, without the need for rooftop panels.The product quickly found traction with customers, which led to its expansion across additional channels throughout 2020. Today, Make it Solar is offered in mass retail and across all channels – appearing in TV, radio, billboard, and social ads.

To date, through the Make it Solar program, Reliant has saved nearly 300 million pounds in carbon emissions. Customers now, more than ever, are interested in supporting organizations and products that offer innovative solutions that align with their environmental goals – and Make it Solar does just that.

Judge Chad Brady of Oracle noted in his assessment: “To many power consumers, the upfront costs of solar make it prohibitive, and Reliant created an innovative program that allowed for carbon emission reduction to happen for anyone through flexible choice programs, without the hassle of panel purchases. This effort is wildly important to all citizens, and I was impressed with…the adoption rates.”

United Way Worldwide

Initiative: Ride United Last Mile Delivery

The emergence of COVID-19 led to tens of millions of people isolated in their homes, creating the highest unemployment levels in half a century, and leaving many struggling to meet basic needs. Many who could previously afford food for their families worried about their next meal. Due to stay-at-home orders and reduced access to public transportation, existing lifelines — like food banks, pantries, grocery stores, meal services — were suddenly unsafe and out of reach.

Recognizing this food access challenge, United Way launched a newpartnership with DoorDash, the nation’s largest food delivery company, to create the Ride United Last Mile Delivery program and safely deliver food and critical household goods to high-risk and food insecure homes. Across 231 communities, United Way and 211, a vital service connecting people to essential health and human services, work with local food pantry partners to identify people in need of essential deliveries. Through a secure online system, United Way submits weekly pick up and drop off information to DoorDash. DoorDash drivers then pick up packages from food pantries and make contact free deliveries to clients.

Since April 2020, Last Mile Delivery has provided more than 430,000 free deliveries including 5.3 million meals, supporting over 41,000 households in need of food pantry boxes, food bank meals and other essential items. It is currently active in 20 markets across 13 states. In April 2021, Ride United Last Mile Delivery expanded to include pet food deliveries, to ensure pet owners can keep their pets healthy during these tough times, without sacrificing their personal nutrition to feed their animals. The Pets Eat Too (PET) pilot, supported by DoorDash delivery services and PetSmart Charities, will provide more than 3,600 deliveries in four communities.  

Preparing groceries for delivery.

The implementation success achieved by teams across the country has resulted in securing additional sponsorship from national donors like Albertsons, the Rockfeller Foundation and others, including an offer by DoorDash to match up to one million free deliveries for the program over the next two years. As the country moves toward recovery, the Last Mile Delivery model is one of the programs, born out of pandemic innovation, that will have lasting beneficial effects. Going forward United way says that Last Mile Delivery will continue to provide essential food and household delivery services for people living in food deserts, experiencing transportation barriers, or otherwise unable to safely access food, with a goal of expanding it to as many as 70 markets by 2023.  

“Impressive data on markets, people, and meals served,” wrote awards judge Jeff George of Hain Celestial Group. Judge Al Callier of noted that United Way Worldwide “achieved significant impact, at large scale, during a critical time.”

Best New Initiative Winners:

Merchants Fleet

Initiative: ReadyShare

Each year, the Merchants Innovation Coaching Academy at Merchants Fleet, a privately-held fleet management company, puts 15 individuals from across the company through design thinking training. Through this process in 2020, the Merchants Innovation team identified an opportunity for Merchants to optimize the truck rental process for last-mile delivery clients, who were faced with costly downtime challenges and inflexible options when working with traditional brick-and-mortar car and truck rental providers, including restrictive three-to-six-month lease terms; limited locations; and little visibility into fleet data to measure efficiency.

The innovation team determined that at any given point in time, 10 percent of most delivery fleets are experiencing vehicle out-of-service challenges, resulting in costly down-time and an inability to meet operational demands. For each hour of vehicle down-time, drivers are unable to perform their routes, the company misses out on crucial revenue, and customer experience is compromised. Fleet managers typically scramble for vehicles to fill these short-term gaps. A savvy fleet manager might have a few “spare” trucks on hand to help cover the out-of-service instances, but would run into trouble when faced with spikes in demand. The Merchants teams recognized the need for greater flexibility, and created a unique nation-wide trucking sharing program focused on providing a more convenient way for last-mile delivery clients to access a dedicated pool of rental trucks for short term rental needs, and alleviating the inconvenient down-time of the traditional approach. They were able to:

  • Offer short-term rentals from one to thirty days.
  • Implement an online platform for round-the-clock accessibility. The initial platform is a simple automated key box access system that operates in tandem with the online reservation process. 
  • Once the rental term is over, the trucks are returned to a Truck Share location, conveniently located near a last-mile distribution facility where they are serviced and await the next assignment, which is unique versus other sharing platforms. 
  • Offer trucks connected to vehicle telematics, giving fleet managers the ability to monitor important fleet data even when using a short-term lease vehicle, including vehicle systems information, maintenance needs, fuel use, and driver behavior. 

The Merchants team also recognized that incorporating electric vehicles into the Truck Share program would provide fleet managers with a convenient “try before you buy” experience. Merchants’ new ReadyShare program, a first of its kind in the industry, will be piloted at multiple last-mile delivery distribution centers throughout the country in Q3 of 2021. 

Navin Kunde of Clorox, one of the judges, wrote that Merchants Fleet “collaborated creatively with others in the industry (like Agile Fleet and Fleet Commander) to make this happen. I also loved that they had the foresight to include EV’s in their TruckShare solution with a goal of letting fleet managers ‘try before you buy.’”

Michigan Virtual

Initiative: Collaborative Online Learning

In early March 2020, a small group at Michigan Virtual held a week-long design sprint focused on making the non-profit’s online high school courses more flexible, so they could be used by schools for both in-person and remote learning. Michigan Virtual did so with school closures due to weather, or absenteeism due to illness, in mind, as COVID-19 had yet to emerge into a full global pandemic — though by the end of the design sprint, it was apparent that the initiative might be applicable much sooner than the team anticipated. Within days, schools across the country were closing, and in the weeks and months that followed, the project quickly moved from idea, to experimentation and feedback, to implementation.

Michigan Virtual historically provided supplemental high school courses, delivered online and taught by a Michigan Virtual teacher. Students were typically from an in-person school, and took one or two online classes to supplement their in-person schedule. In response to COVID-19, however, schools quickly became interested in fully online schedules. To meet that need, Michigan Virtual defined a new delivery model, the Whole School model (since rebranded the Collaborative model), in which they provided the course content, and trained teachers from local schools to deliver courses remotely to their students. 

Among the challenges they overcame:

  • Engaging with schools and educational leadership, and monitoring public health information, to determine the potential demand for fully online learning, and the ability of local schools to deliver online learning to their students, given challenges around device and internet availability.
  • Designing training for local teachers to quickly onboard them into a new online learning platform, a new set of content to teach, and a new method of teaching.
  • Standing up new processes for sales, finance, customer support, and back-end technical support (student enrollments, schedule changes, assigning teachers, content modifications, etc).
  • Working with partners and vendors to secure permissions to use course content that Michigan Virtual did not own in the new model, ensuring both a full catalog of high school offerings and, for the first time, a full middle school catalog. 
  • Doing all of that with a workforce that was 100 percent remote for the first time, while running their core programs, which were experiencing record levels of enrollments. 

The Collaborative model was deployed in mid-August 2020. The team was led by Justin Bruno, Michigan Virtual’s Assistant Director of District Programming, and was truly cross-functional, with individuals from across the organization. A total of 30 middle and high schools across Michigan were powered by the newly-created Collaborative model, helping to drive Michigan Virtual’s “students served” metric up by nearly 20,000 over the prior year. Hundreds of other schools benefited from free course content and training modules that were made available in response to the pandemic. Feedback, collected continuously throughout the school year through surveys and focus groups with all stakeholders, has been positive, and work is underway to evolve the program as a future-of-learning model with benefits for both in-person and remote learning environments.

“I loved the idea of quickly mobilizing to resolve what was an issue for every school-aged child not only in the US, but around the world,” wrote Rick Paster of Peloton in his judge’s notes. “They helped democratize learning, which has been a struggle since the pandemic began.”

PwC Germany

Initiative: PwC Germany Horizon

PwC Horizon was founded in July 2020 as the new staff unit for Corporate Development & Innovation within PwC Germany, the auditing and consulting firm. PwC Horizon aims to digitize PwC’s business model, and to facilitate the transition from a service-delivering auditor and advisor, into the direction of a product-led company. 

Horizon functions as an intersection for new digital business, not only for enhanced cooperation with external actors, but also as a hub for internal innovation initiatives. As a central innovation engine within the firm, PwC Horizon drives business ecosystems in various ways. The thematic and strategic focus for all actions is guaranteed by the PwC Innovation Compass, a newly-created framework for all investments in new digital business.

Some of the team members at PwC Germany Horizon.

Horizon Corporate Development & Innovation offers three programs: Venture, Partner and Build. By acquiring minority or majority shares from external partners, the Venture program helps PwC to gain quick access to new technologies, external knowledge and talent. The Partner program provides a structured framework to enable new value propositions in cooperation with external partners. And within the Build program, PwC Horizon enabled the building of more than 20 digital products inhouse; half are market-ready and one-third are already creating significant revenues. The most successful internally-developed business models will be spun off into new entities outside of PwC.

“PwC took a great approach in combining different sources of innovation across the ‘venture/partner/build’ model, versus operating in silos,” wrote Fuat Koro, one of this year’s judges, and a former Head of Corporate Strategy and Innovation at Bose Corp. “Amazing results and breakneck speed for an organization the size of PwC,” wrote Dan Wheeler of Uncle Julio’s, another judge.

USAA & State Farm

Initiative: Blockchain Subrogation Settlement

USAA and State Farm team members who contributed to the blockhain subrogation project.

Led by members of USAA Claims Innovation and State Farm’s Red Labs, a cross-functional business and technical team collaborated across organizational, industry, and legal barriers to co-develop a first of its kind blockchain solution. In December 2020, USAA and State Farm began processing auto subrogation claims settled between the two companies using the permissioned, Ethereum-based Quorum blockchain. (The subrogation process allows one insurer to recoup costs from the insurer of the at-fault party in an accident. Currently, insurers often send checks to each other on a claim-by-claim basis, even though they will have hundreds of claims to settle. And each involves manual reconciliation.) Now, blockchain-driven financial transactions replace the manual, time-consuming and paper-heavy subrogation payment process, the method used by insurers to exchange money to settle claims between their insureds.

The teams built a plan in early 2018 and delivered an initial prototype in Q4 2018. Following successful completion of an initial prototype, the teams focused on building and testing the solution using real data via a “shadow-production environment.” During that testing period, the solution was evaluated by ingesting historical subrogation data, and comparing the blockchain solution to the manual subrogation process for accuracy. 

Among the benefits:

  • efficiency and cost savings
  • for the consumer, there’s the potential for savings to be passed on in premiums, or having deductibles reimbursed earlier
  • a decrease in the labor-intensive processes that go along with transacting with numerous parties
  • because the data is shared, no reconciliation should be needed.

After a successful production period, which began in December 2020, USAA and State Farm plan to transition their focus to expanding their business network to more insurers.

Colleen Hau of Carhartt, who evaluated this submission, wrote: “What a great way to bring together existing tech — blockchain — to solve a big business pain point around subrogation. I hope that they scale this out further with additional insurance companies.” 


Initiative: CASI — Predicting Spread of COVID-19 to Safeguard Unilever’s Global Ecosystem

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated, Unilever needed to rapidly evolve their workforce strategy to help protect employees, while maintaining the supply of products to 2.5 billion consumers worldwide.

Unilever teamed up with PA Consulting to create a new predictive tool, COVID-19 Awareness and Situational Intelligence (CASI). CASI is a live dashboard that provides real-time reporting, data monitoring, and predictive intelligence on COVID-19 trends from a global and regional level down to hundreds of Unilever sites. 

CASI was built and launched within three months, applying the latest in artificial intelligence and machine learning. It reports on more than 250,000 COVID-19-related data points daily, in a dynamic dashboard. The goal is to empower Unilever with the predictive intelligence to forecast the evolving pandemic, with an accuracy rate of over 80 percent for seven-day forecasts, and 75 percent for 30-day forecasts. 

A screenshot of the CASI dashboard.

Unilever teams around the world now use CASI daily, to accurately anticipate COVID-19 infection rates and flexibly adapt supply chain operations, site protocols, and workforce health and safety planning. PA Consulting also helped to make CASI available to Unilever’s global ecosystem, by creating multiple versions of the tool and sharing it with their employees and supplier partner network.

CASI represents a breakthrough in navigating and harnessing the world of open data — and this approach potentially unlocks opportunities far beyond the pandemic, from managing global trends to reimagining the future of work, improving employee well-being, and predicting consumer behavior.

“Unilever and CASI did a great job not just solving a short-term issue,” wrote judge Rick Paster of Peloton, but setting up “an innovative solution for the long-term.”

MVP Winners:


Winner: Melanie Nuce

Melanie Nuce is the Senior Vice President of Innovation and Partnerships at GS1 US, a not-for-profit standards organization that helps administer standards like the UPC barcode and GTINs, or global trade item numbers. Nuce’s team is responsible for “looking around the corner” investigating new technologies, partnerships and business opportunities that can increase the relevance and reach of GS1 standards.

Melanie Nuce, SVP of Innovation & Partnerships, GS1 US

Under Nuce’s leadership, a number of transformative innovation practices have been implemented, including the creation of an innovation incubation and commercialization framework, along with defined focus areas, stage gates, and key performance indicators. With this structure in place, each year the innovation team is piloting more than a dozen projects (across Horizons 1 to 3), with at least two per year successfully going through the process of commercialization.

Among the initiatives she has helped launch at GS1 US: the Executive Exchange Forum; for soliciting ideas from thought leaders in the marketplace; a podcast called “Next Level Supply Chain with GS1 US”; developer hackathons, for both internal and external developers, and Startup Lab pitch coaching clinics and competitions.

Judge Chad Brady of Oracle commented, “I was particularly impressed with GS1’s details of execution, and their commercialization of products that started with incubation and made it through the innovation lifecycle, as well as the ancillary efforts like podcasts, employee hackathons and workshops that promote excitement around innovation and help instill it into the culture at GS1.” 


Winner: Angelica White

is a Strategic Innovation Director on USAA’s Claims Innovation team whose contributions have directly led to the development and initial implementation of USAA’s Telematics Enabled Auto Claims program.

Angelica White, Strategic Innovation Director, USAA

Telematics data is becoming a staple in the insurance industry, with the majority of top insurance carriers having telematics-based auto insurance offerings available on the market, such as USAA’s SafePilot or Progressive’s Snapshot. But until recently, the use of telematics data has primarily been restricted to pricing and underwriting policies, with a future opportunity to capitalize on claims servicing and efficiency. In 2019, when USAA was first bringing its SafePilot program to market, White and her team recognized the opportunity to leverage telematics data in the claims experience. During 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, she brought this opportunity from idea to action by developing internal business processes to marry USAA’s customer service reputation with a telematics data portal that would enable adjusters to use this data to support the member’s loss report, and streamline the claims handling experience.

White designed and delivered a new adjuster training program; ensured all legal, risk, and compliance standards were met; and socialized the program with various state Departments of Insurance to gain feedback on how this program could be implemented to benefit consumers. As a result of her efforts during 2020, the program has since grown from a small pilot group of adjusters to full-scale usage in claims investigation at USAA, with a number of success stories reported by adjusters on how the new tool and business process has enabled them to provide better member service.

Judge Rick Paster of Peloton noted that trying to deal with claims following a car accident “can be one of the worst processes” for consumers, adding, “USAA continuing to iterate and innovate on the process is significant, especially as it takes human error further from the equation.”

The 2021 Impact Award Judges

Our judges this year included past Impact Award winners; members of our Editorial Advisory Board; and past conference speakers and hosts of InnoLead events. We’re grateful to them for their involvement!

  • Chad Brady, Director, Oracle Utilities (former Director, Duke Energy)
  • Algernon Callier, Head of Business Development,
  • Michelle Cohen, Director of the Innovation & Acceleration Lab, CME Group
  • Jeff George, Senior VP of R&D, The Hain Celestial Group
  • Jay Gerhart, VP, Innovation Engine, Atrium Health
  • Colleen Hau, Director of Global Product Innovation, Carhartt
  • Fuat Koro, former Head of Corporate Strategy & Innovation, Bose Corp.
  • Navin Kunde, Department Manager of Open Innovation, Clorox
  • Tony Parham, Senior VP and Head of Sales Innovation, Fidelity Investments
  • Rick Paster, VP of M&A Integration, Peloton
  • Jeanette Uddoh, Head of Innovation, Access Bank
  • Dan Wheeler, Chief Marketing Officer, Uncle Julios Corp.