Companies develop specialty labs to innovate products, solve problems and contemplate the future.

In an almost hidden building near Bexley, photos of a brilliant green Chinese tea leaf and a Guatemalan coffee farmer welcome visitors to Crimson Cup's Innovation Lab. At Fuse by Cardinal Health, a lab located 1.4 miles from the main campus, a startup-like environment turns ideas into prototypes. Safelite Works breaks new ground from inside Rev1 Ventures Labs, working side-by-side with Columbus startups. Nationwide's lab Refinery 191 will move to a new 31,000-square-foot location in 2019, having outgrown its capacity. Other companies, such as Wendy's, Honda and Otterbein University, operate similar centers.

A growing number of Columbus-based organizations are investing in off-site locations that house separate teams devoted entirely to innovation. These “innovation centers” don't fit one mold, with the number of people, goals and setups varying by industry and company. But they share fundamental characteristics that their leaders agree help drive success: diverse teams, strategic use of space, a customer-centric focus and a process for transforming ideas into actions.

“Each company has to do what is right for them,” says Brent Stutz, senior vice president of commercial technologies for Cardinal Health and leader of Fuse. “There's no prescriptive blueprint that works for everyone.”

The innovation center trend began in technology-based industries, but is expanding as companies increasingly face “next generation consumer needs,” says AravindChandrasekaran, associate professor of operations and associate director of the Center for Operational Excellence at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. He says it helps companies have “ambidexterity” and work on incremental innovation ideas while separating out a lab to look for the next big idea in their own and other industries.

Separate & Strategic Space

Innovation labs across different industries find value in a separate location with a space designed to spur creativity and provide functional solutions. As Nationwide develops its larger space, the focus is on flexibility, says Scott Sanchez, the company's chief innovation officer.

“Innovation requires lots of different nodes and postures and we want the space to conform to how we want to work and not the other way around,” Sanchez explains. Nationwide's new design will emulate a town with a center where people can congregate surrounded by “neighborhoods” with a more intimate feel and “houses” where teams can hole up.

For Cardinal, the off-site space was about creating a new culture, way of working and philosophy.

“We wanted more of a West Coast style. It's hard to carve out the second floor of our headquarters and do that there,” says Stutz.

Crimson Cup renovated the building that previously housed its production facility to create the 7,000-square-foot lab. Education and Sustainability Director Brandon Bir says the building also provides a place to educate, as the only facility in Ohio certified as a Premiere Campus by the Specialty Coffee Association.

Baristas and consumers receive training in a theater and classroom while different laboratories have equipment from beakers and microscopes to bowls of coffee beans for hands-on testing. One of the company's original roasting machines, named Hansel (Gretel is down the street at the production facility), is also hooked to a laptop to create and capture roasting “curves.”

Safelite Works operates a bit differently, with its three-member team renting space at Rev1 to be among startups. Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Safelite Group, and Renee Cacchillo, senior vice president of customer, brand and technology, toured other labs, and Cacchillo says they asked themselves: “What if we just gave people the freedom to work outside our four walls, look at the latest technology and apply it to our business in an innovative way?”

Though physically separate, strong centers find ways to remain tightly integrated to their parent organizations despite the distance. This may mean a senior leader works at the center or visits regularly, or that different teams hold meetings there or receive updates. Nationwide's Sanchez says this connection is important both philosophically and functionally.

“It helps us avoid what I call organ rejection,” he says.

Diverse Teams

Carefully crafted teams are another common pillar of Columbus' innovation centers. Some organizations, like Safelite, intentionally keep their teams small.

“We'd rather open a second innovation lab than get too big,” says Feeney about his three-member team. “We've had some very large companies visit our little innovation lab and leave scratching their heads.”

Other companies run labs with more people, but are always considering what is the most strategic and diverse mix of people best able to address challenges or seek new innovations.

Sanchez says a Nationwide team might include a product manager, design thinker, researcher, business member and technology lead—but it also includes other “dimensions” of diversity like years of experience and knowledge of Nationwide.

At Cardinal, Fuse discards the assembly line process and places everyone working on a product around the same table.

“We wanted to work quicker, so we needed a diverse set of thinkers and skills around the table,” says Stutz.

Customers/Clients at the Core

Most Columbus innovation labs employ a user-centered process and bring in consumers and prospective customers to test prototypes or give feedback.

“We find a customer with a problem and work alongside them to find a way to solve the problem,” says Stutz.

For Crimson Cup, innovation goes hand-in-hand with quality and education, which is why the lab often hosts events and trainings. Bir says this commitment extends beyond consumers to farmers and others involved in the coffee industry.

“Innovations in coffee are typically motivated by wanting to help people,” he says, explaining the importance of protecting farmers and Crimson Cup's willingness to share innovations with other organizations.

“We have the attitude of wanting to lead and push the industry along. We're passionate about the people behind the product.”

A Startup Mentality

A thriving innovation hub can produce ground-breaking results, but operating like a startup also requires a different mentality about investments and risks.

Chandrasekaran, with OSU's Fisher College of Business, says these centers offer an agile development process because “innovation is a long-term game, but companies don't want to wait until the long term to succeed or fail.”

Stutz says Fuse gives Cardinal this ability to try new things and “fail fast and pivot when needed.”

Safelite President and CEO Feeney says organizations pursuing innovation labs need to have courage, be comfortable around failure and not be impatient, which can be contrary to the principles on which businesses typically run.

Bringing Ideas to Market

In Columbus, innovation centers don't operate as think tanks, but as drivers for tangible improvements. Some focus on short-term deliverables, while others look at “disruptive” ideas that may come from advances in technology or transitions in other industries. Many have “Horizon 1,” or shorter-term projects, and also “Horizon 2” or “Horizon 3”—longterm ideas that look years down the road toward completion.

Cardinal Health seeks to move many ideas through its “discover, explore, experiment, pilot” methodology, and has projects with timelines from immediate to three years.

Safelite Works emphasizes immediate value for customers, asking “can we make it win in three weeks or less,” explains Cacchillo.

For example, the team looked at Microsoft chatbox and designed an FAQ chatbox for the website the same day. But Feeney notes the greatest challenge may be continuing to innovate even the labs themselves.

“We need to be open to change, listen to feedback from the people who are there, and constantly improve.”

Mary Sterenberg is a freelance writer.