4 Different Approaches to Innovation Centers but 3 Common Goals

The Wireless Technology Forum‘s July panel moderated by Merrick Furst, Flashpoint Founder and Distinguished Professor at Georgia Tech, provided insights into innovation centers from Delta, First Data, Ericsson, and Dover Corporation. Rachel Ford provided insight into Cox Enterprises partnership with TechStars Atlanta.

Each innovation center took different approaches to innovation but their goals were the same.


  1. Solve problems for the customer.
  2. Position the company as an innovation leader in their respective industry.
  3. Participate in the ecosystem, but maintain company secrets.

All goals aligned with the overall company goal of creating more revenue, and attract / retain top talent.


Delta took a democratized innovation approach to their Innovation center named, “The Hangar.” Delta employees are encouraged to submit ideas and participate in projects.

Mahesh Gupta, General Manager – Innovation and Enterprise Mobility at Delta Air Lines, showed a video with insight into projects from “The Hangar” including:

  • Wayfinding – Mobile solution to help passengers with connecting flights find their next gate.
  • Reducing wait times in the airport terminal
  • Voice and Biometric Check-Ins

First Data

First Data’s innovation center has already been operational for five years.Philip Jefferies, Director of Innovation, First Data reported their approach originated from Scott Cook, Intuit co-founder, “Create delightful experiences that people can’t imagine, then could never imagine going back.” First Data’s innovation lab evangelizes Design Thinking to employees by conducting workshops and training.

Dover Corporation

Ken Durand very recently left his role as VP Product Innovation at Ericsson to launch the Innovation center at Dover Corporation. Ken discussed the difference between Research and Development (R&D) and Innovation Centers. Dover’s R&D labs will focus on immediate to 1 year goals, while the Innovation Center will focus on 2-5 year development projects.

Cox Enterprises

Cox Enterprises took the most unique route of all by partnering with global accelerator, TechStars to create the Atlanta office. TechStars Atlanta selects 10 innovative startups per year to put through their accelerator program in exchange for Cox Enterprises retaining an equity stake in each startup.

Success Stories

What do innovation centers actually accomplish for the business?

Philip Jefferies, discussed partnering with Chick-fil-a’s innovation center to create the Chick-fil-A One app. This app allows customers to order and pay for their items before they enter the restaurant to reduce wait times.

Delta raised Net Promoter Scores by implementing bots to ask passengers for their meal preferences and using that data to provide the correct mix of meal types during flights.

Innovation Center Pitfalls

All panelists came together in agreement on how it is easy to get caught up in shiny new technology, and forget to focus on solving problems. For example, Philip Jefferies discussed bringing in AR/VR headsets into the office, but the team realized that AR/VR didn’t solve any customer payment problems.

KISS – Keep it Simple Sam

When we think about innovation centers, complicated technology is usually first to come to mind. Sometimes the simplest solutions work best.

Delta went from ideation to MVP in 2 months by creating a simple mobile solution for Delta gate agents to quickly pull up a passenger record locator / Passenger Name Record (PNR) in airport terminals. This mobile solution reduced wait times for passengers and decreased employee frustration.

First Data developed a pre-paid card where customers could check their balance real-time. Philip Jefferies noted the development team offered to add bells and whistles to the product, but a real-time pre-paid card served the customer needs. The target customer was customers who didn’t have credit, but wanted a credit card in their hand when shopping.

Are Innovation Centers a fad?

The audience held nothing back during Q&A, asking the tough questions. An audience member brought up that the iPhone was invented without an innovation center, and asked if we really needed them. Perhaps Steve Jobs was his own innovation center?

Since we had 5 speakers running innovation centers, it was no surprise each gave their pro-innovation center testimony.

The real tough question was the follow up question: When the economy takes a downturn and budget cuts are made, are Innovation centers or marketing the first to get cut? Ken Durand admitted that his innovation center budget was cut during the last recession.

Where do we go from here?

As a resident of Atlanta, I’m thrilled to know that my hometown airline, Delta, is taking an innovative competitive approach to travel instead of a commodity approach, like a few other airlines. By the same token, First Data is innovating payments instead of just processing payments the same old way. These large companies taking a stand to innovate will help push Atlanta forward economically.

Next week, I will post the prequel to this article with a recap of the AT&T Drive Studio tour that preceded the Innovation Center panel discussion. Special Thanks to Chris Kocks for coordinating the panel and Andriy Khomenko for coordinating the Drive Studio Tour and event venue.

Caroline Dunn is an experienced marketing executive combining her natural leadership ability and engineering education in marketing communications, content marketing, social media, and product management. She has a proven track record in exceeding sales objectives, leading execution teams, and campaign management.

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