Mary Kate Love believes that the common thread of the innovation process, from ideation to customer discovery to implementation, is forcing people “ to be a little bit uncomfortable.”
Love spent most of her career at UI Labs, an innovation center based in Chicago that works with companies, universities and government entities. Because of its many stakeholders, the UI team members had to constantly balance different, sometimes-contrasting needs.
“It was an exercise in ‘how do you make unnatural alliances work?’” says Love. She found that these tensions inevitably led to improved, and often faster, innovation.
Companies from around the country would visit UI Labs to learn from their process. About a year ago, Love took a team from Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific on a tour of the Labs.
The manufacturing company had sent representatives to Chicago to scout and learn best practices for an idea it had been working towards: a innovation center focused on the supply chain industry. In an Amazon-driven delivery landscape, supply chain optimization is hugely important to a company that produces everything from paper towels and toilet paper to specialized building equipment.
While the corporation was committed to putting up the initial funding for the project — an amount that ended up somewhere between $5-7 million — they didn’t feel they needed to own all the intellectual capital coming out of the center. They visited Love to see what a collaborative innovation environment might look like.
“I had never heard of a corporate taking a super-collaborative approach to innovation like Georgia-Pacific,” Love tells Hypepotamus.
After several conversations over a few months, Love joined Georgia-Pacific, relocated to Atlanta, and led a team to open the Point A Center for Supply Chain Innovation.
Point A is a member-driven, cooperative hub that brings together companies from across the spectrum — Fortune 500 to mid-sized to startup — along with academic partners and others to address problems that all of its member companies face.
The hub opened this past June and is initially located in the 15,000-square-foot TechSquare Labs, a former startup hub in Atlanta’s Tech Square. The area is a beehive of innovation activity, with over 20 corporate innovation centers present within a square mile.
Though Georgia-Pacific has committed to building a second location, a custom 23,000-square-foot facility in their headquarters, next year, the Point A team is moving full steam ahead on programming and process-building.
An innovation clubhouse
Point A’s model is unique amongst the Atlanta corporate innovation ecosystem, and perhaps in its industry and in the region. Rather than focusing on problems faced by just one founding company, Point A runs in a democratic fashion, steered by members.
Those members can be any company for whom supply chain affects their business. That can span logistics, manufacturing, transportation, shipping, warehousing and more. Members might be those with supply chain pain points, like Georgia-Pacific, or those with supply chain solutions, like Idom, a Spain-based consulting, engineering and architecture firm.
There are three tiers of membership, the first and highest being the “charter members,” at $100K annually. The financial commitment allows the company to place a representative in a seat on the Point A board, the decision-making body that oversees Point A’s innovation focuses and processes.
The first charter members include Genuine Parts, Grainger, Siemens, and of course Georgia‐Pacific.
A middle tier, the “corporate members,” allows companies to participate in the entire innovation process — without board seats or decision-making power — for $50K annually. Startups or smaller companies can join the least-costly “project” third tier.
All members can use the Point A space for meetings and working on projects.
Before they’ve officially even begun any projects, Point A counts 11 member companies; six are charter members.
The plan is for expansion to happen quickly. Charter memberships with board seats will stay relatively exclusive, but Love says they’d like to reach 150 overall member companies by this time next year.
“The more companies we have that are willing to roll up their sleeves and work, the better the outcomes for everyone, including Georgia Pacific.”
Love explains that this entire membership model stems from the culture of Koch Industries, the family-owned parent company of Georgia-Pacific. One can easily see the parallels between the mission and vision of Point A and the Koch vision statement, which highlights the need for companies to embrace change, and then drive its implementation.
“It’s not enough to just do things more efficiently. We need to be thinking in terms of new business models, new ways of doing things, ways that are transformative,” writes Charles Koch, Chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, in the company’s vision statement.
Love says the Point A model is the way to become that transformation leader.
“We have the idea that innovation already exists in the marketplace,” she says. “We just have to bring it together.”
On to the hard stuff: The Point A innovation process
According to Love, this multi-part process took months — and “sitting in conference rooms whiteboarding for literally hours,” — to come together.
The five-phase approach is designed to take about three months and go all the way from pain point to actionable solution. It’s relatively democratic and wholly driven by the members participating in the process.
“We had to make sure we were doing this in a way that almost re-creates a free market,” explains Love.
In the first phase, “Discovering”, the focus area is identified by Point A’s board. That could be any issue along the supply chain — security, efficiency, traceability and more. Point A brings in one of its academic partners to hold an educational event and get all the members on the same page as far as definitions and technology.
Phase 1 closes with a two-week crowdsourcing challenge where members share their biggest challenge within the focus area. They don’t want to be spending time working on a problem that isn’t a real issue.
“What we learned from other innovation centers was to get obsessed with the problem,” says Love. “A lot of people get obsessed with the technology, and then they find it doesn’t solve a real problem.”
In stage two, “Ideating”, the team identifies the top three challenges. There is another workshop, inspired by design thinking, where the group envisions solutions and identifies one or a few members as “problem statement owner”.
After about a month, the “Forming” stage begins. Companies with potential solutions showcase them in a pitch panel, and project teams are formed.
The fourth, “Doing” phase is the longest and most intensive phase. The teams identify a scope of work, who and how many people they’ll need from each company.
An important step that takes place in this phase is the identification and agreement on an IP plan. With so many companies at the table, potentially revealing internal processes and discussing future plans, Love says that intellectual property protections are part and parcel of the Point A membership agreement.
“It creates a trusted, neutral environment,” she says.
Lastly, the fifth phase, “Realizing”, determines what the outcomes of the challenge will become moving forward. The solutions might be implemented by some of the member companies. They could become wholly new startups. Or, they could be classified as a failure, at which point the Point A members go back to the drawing board and start again.
Following a few tests of the process this year, the first official crowdsourcing challenge is slated for this January, focused on supply chain digitalization. Eventually they’ll hold challenges focused on topics as diverse as AI, robotics, blockchain, machine learning and autonomous vehicles, all within the context of supply chain.
Moving full steam ahead
Beyond recruiting members, launching an entirely-new innovation process, and looking towards their new facility next year, what keeps Love up at Point A late at night? She’s still trying to determine how exactly the center will fit into and augment the Atlanta technology ecosystem.
Atlanta, already known for its strength in supply chain with businesses like The Home Depot and UPS, has several organizations committed to bolstering that reputation further. Last year, the Metro Atlanta Chamber launched the #SupplyChainCity movement, an effort to cement the city’s leadership in the industry. The Georgia Department of Economic Development has a Center of Innovation focused on Logistics.
Love says Point A leadership intend to incorporate an education and workforce training component to their activities. They hope to work with startups and young talent and have already formed strong partnerships with the Chamber and Georgia Tech.
“The people and the environment are already here,” says Love. “We just needed a place to bring the people working on innovation together.”