The World’s Best Innovation Labs … from Boston Dynamics to CERN, DeepMind to MIT Media Lab, PARC and Alphabet’s X

March 20, 2020

What do you think of when you hear “innovation lab?”

You may have in mind something closer to the original innovation lab, which was the Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin started decades ago.

Innovation labs have shifted beyond the traditional, insular R&D role of the past – maybe you recall the secretive projects of Xerox PARC or Bell Labs – and today typically focus on two roles :

  • Focus on developing innovative concepts and business models without the distractions, demands and expectations, breaking down cultural and organisational obstacles, of everyday business.
  • Focus on developing new ventures, that require collaborative working and investments with external partners – be that other companies, new start-ups, and specialists – and may even lead to a new business.

With that in mind, here is a definition: “An innovation lab is an open, collaborative space where companies and organisations team up their employees from different departments with outside partners, tech experts, designers, and academics, seeking to emulate the culture, speed, tech integration, and disruptiveness of a start-up, in order to develop new products, services, experiences and business models that take advantage of new business strategies and advances in technology.”

There are many different types of innovation labs – you will probably have heard of incubators and accelerators too. These typically focus on incubating new start-up businesses which have less resources or experiences, or accelerating start-ups to a scale-up phase by adding more corporate structure, collaboration and more. They may be run by independent companies, or venture capital funds who want to ensure that their investments are spent effectively, but they might equally be run by larger corporates who want to bring start-ups  into their fold, either to share in their entrepreneurial culture, or to have first option on the outcomes.

Here’s a vision of DZ Bank’s innovation lab, “The Think and Do Tank” showing how it seeks to combine radical ideation, with rapid development (design thinking, lean sprints etc) and accelerated implementation:

Of course many companies also develop innovation labs as vanity projects – colourful bean bags, lots of white boards, bikes hanging from the ceiling, a few robots sliding around, table football in the corner, you get the idea – but innovation labs can play a really important role in driving more radical ideas, new cultures, and future growth.

Here is a list of typical goals of a typical innovation lab:

  • Faster development of new products and/or explore new business models that solve core client needs and drive company revenue.
  • Shift the company culture towards greater innovation, tech integration, and collaboration both internally and with outside groups.
  • Enable change from their existing strategy to a new business strategy (more customer-centric, digital transformation, design thinking, etc.).
  • Stave off the threat of digital disruption from competitors, especially start-ups.
  • Demonstrate products and capabilities to current clients, potential clients, and business partners.
  • Foster partnerships with outside companies, startups, and leading academic organizations.
  • Explore the potential of new technologies independent of current product development, to solve client problems in new ways.
  • Be a working lab to collaborate with clients to solve their specific challenges.
  • Be a stage for presentations and videos, in the age of YouTube and Instagram.
  • Open a collaborative space closer to industry innovators and tech centers.
  • Collaborate with customers to co-create and get feedback about new products.
  • Appeal to, recruit, and retain digitally-skilled new talent.
  • Create multiple innovation centers focused on different client vertical markets, geographic regions, or high-potential new technologies.

Industry and academic experts have studied how innovation labs markedly shifts business models and improves product/service offerings. Here are two key findings:

  • Continually Manage Stakeholders To Ensure Successful Innovation Actually Gets Used: When an innovation lab develops a breakthrough new product or business model, there will likely be resistance to folding that new product back into the core business units or starting a new standalone division. Strong communication and buy-in from key stakeholders within the company will grease the wheels and help new innovations take root. This has been the experience of Tendayi Viki, Managing Partner, Benneli Jacobs, as described in Forbes, and Scott Kirsner, editor, and co-founder of Innovation Leader, as interviewed in Forbes.
  • Ambidextrous Organizations Are More Successful: Most corporations focus their innovation lab on either incremental innovations that match their current business model or breakthrough innovations that disrupt their current business model. Ambidextrous organizations focus on both. These ambidextrous organizations are much more successful than companies that focus on only incremental or only breakthrough innovation. That’s the finding of Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michal L. Tushman, professors and consultants on innovation, as published in the Harvard Business Review.

Here are some of the world’s most celebrated innovation labs – research and development, creative and design – spaces which effectively explore, develop and accelerate new ideas to our worlds:

Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics began as a spin-off from MIT, where they developed the first robots that ran and moved like animals. Now we are taking the next step, combining the principles of dynamic control and balance with sophisticated mechanical designs, cutting-edge electronics, and software for perception, navigation, and intelligence. Boston Dynamics has an extraordinary technical team of engineers and scientists who seamlessly combine advanced analytical thinking with bold engineering and boots-in-the-mud practicality.

Chinese Academy of Sciences

CAS act as the national scientific think tank that provides advisory services to the government on all issues regarding science and technology, but also in the context of developing the economy and social improvement. It is the largest research organization in the world with over 60,000 researchers working in 114 institutes across China. Based on the total number of research papers published in Nature and its affiliate network, CAS ranked #1 among the world’s leading research organizations.

CERN

CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire) is the European research organization, primary focused on particle physics, investigating smallest observable particles in the universe and their fundamental interactions. It operates the biggest particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider that works on antimatter and the discovery of W and Z bosons. CERN is also, of course, the birthplace of the World Wide Web which started with a project named ENQUIRE by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau sometime in 1990.

Deepmind

DeepMind is the world leader in artificial intelligence research and its application for positive impact. “We’re on a scientific mission to push the boundaries of AI, developing programs that can learn to solve any complex problem without needing to be taught how. If we’re successful, we believe this will be one of the most important and widely beneficial scientific advances ever made, increasing our capacity to understand the mysteries of the universe and to tackle some of our most pressing real-world challenges. From climate change to the need for radically improved healthcare, too many problems suffer from painfully slow progress, their complexity overwhelming our ability to find solutions. With AI as a multiplier for human ingenuity, those solutions will come into reach.” It famously sets challenges for AI to outperform humans at chess, go, and StarShip.

Fraunhofer Society

The Fraunhofer Society is an organization of a total of 69 premier German Institutes all across Germany, specializes in various fields of applied science. One of the famous projects of the Fraunhofer Society is the MP3 compression algorithm. They also contributed to a popular video compression standard MPEG-4 Part 10. The organization has seven research centers in the United States and three in the Asian region.

MIT Media Lab

”The combination of computing and communication, as we know it now and can expect it to evolve in the decades ahead, will vastly expand human creative capacity” said Jerry Wiesner, when opening the Media Lab in 1986. For over 30 years Media Lab researchers have anticipated and created technologies to make our lives safer, cleaner, healthier, fairer, and more productive. But along with benefits, technology’s everyday efficiencies have also brought their share of issues: obesity, poverty, ethical implications, bullying, divergent politics. The Media Lab’s antidisciplinary research community is uniquely equipped to address these concerns, leveraging the best that technology has to offer, and connecting technology back to the social and the human. Current Lab research examines the deeper implications of where technology creation and adoption has led us — and where we want to go next.

Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)

Located in Silicon Valley, PARC is a renowned Open Innovation company that’s been at the heart of some of the most important technological breakthroughs of our time. We bring leading scientists, engineers, and designers together to form bespoke teams across a series of Focus Areas that we believe are the future of technology, science, and innovation.

Creativity and science are core to PARC’s mission to reduce the time and risk attached to innovation. We draw on our revered history and our energy for the future to create technologies that improve our world and solve complex challenges.

Working with PARC means benefiting from something unique. Because every technological challenge is different, the team you work with will assemble and grow organically, based on your innovation goals. It’s this approach to combining expertise and capabilities that have led to some of our most interesting and exciting R&D, technology and IP projects with startups, government agencies and Fortune 500 partners.

Singularity University

Singularity University is a global learning and innovation community using exponential technologies to tackle the world’s biggest challenges and build a better future for all.

Our collaborative platform empowers individuals and organizations across the globe to learn, connect, and innovate breakthrough solutions using accelerating technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital biology. We offer educational programs, courses, and summits; enterprise strategy, leadership, and innovation programs; programs to support and scale startups and promote social impact; and online news and content. The SU community includes entrepreneurs, corporations, global nonprofits, governments, investors, and academic institutions in more than 127 countries. With over 5,000 impact initiatives, our community is driving positive change in the areas of health, environment, security, education, energy, food, prosperity, water, space, disaster resilience, shelter, and governance.

X by Alphabet

X is a diverse group of inventors and entrepreneurs who build and launch technologies that aim to improve the lives of millions, even billions, of people. “Our goal is 10x impact on the world’s most intractable problems, not just 10% improvement. We approach projects that have the aspiration and riskiness of research with the speed and ambition of a startup.”

Read my article: A Decade of Moonshots at Alphabet’s X … addressing huge problems, with breakthrough technologies, creating radical innovation