First, there’s skunkworks, when you hire a bunch of smart people to work on pie-in-the-sky technologies. Motorola, for example, hired away a former head of DARPA to run its skunkworks. It only works on highly technical products with low market risk — like a faster jet plane or Amazon Web Services. It’s not good for developing, say, an app like The Daily and it won’t help you find a market or determine product-market fit.
Then there are innovation labs. Perhaps the best known was Xerox Parc, which was the original Innovation Lab. It came up with brilliant ideas but failed to commercialize them – until Steve Jobs came along and borrowed (some say stole) them. Innovation labs that focus on innovative technologies are known to struggle with commercialization.
Finally, you have intrapreneur programs, which are the latest fad: a four- or eight-week program where employees take time off, explore some ideas and a product, and have to sell it to a business unit within the company. The issue comes back to the incentives inherent in successful business units. They resist ideas they didn’t come up with, no matter how big their potential. They favor incremental innovation that won’t cannibalize their own sales over something that could change their industry for the better.
As a corollary you can have something we recommend: innovation colonies. This is a way for companies to create a fund to invest in ideas their employees have. To participate, though, the employee has to give up the security of their jobs in exchange for equity in the venture. Microsoft, Kaplan, Nike, Barclays, and Disney are just some of the companies utilizing innovation colonies.
Here’s how they work: Employees pitch their ideas, which have been validated, get funding, and own a majority of the equity in these products in the seed stage. They work with other entrepreneurs and the company offers advisement, mentoring and other resources. They seek to develop products, take them to market, and if they gain any traction they can raise a series A with outside investors. They run the company without interference from the Mother ship. In the end, the big company can offer to buy their startups back. The magic is that the entrepreneurs are incentivized to build a real business.