Home Depot, IKEA, and Accenture are examples of major companies with innovation labs.
The labs are designed to attract the brightest minds in technology, giving them a place to channel their entrepreneurial spirit with the security of working for an established organization.
Companies benefit too, because they're less likely to lose their top talent to the startup world.
Alphabet, Google's parent company, has a famous innovation lab called X.
"It's like being an entrepreneur," said Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, "minus the risk."
Chamorro-Premuzic, a psychology professor at Columbia University and the chief talent scientist at Manpower, was referring to "intrapreneurship." It's a general term for acting like a company founder, but within the confines of an established organization — typically in what's called a corporate innovation lab. Think X, Alphabet's research and development team that's also been called a "moonshot factory."
Across industries, intrapreneurial opportunities have grown relatively common. And while few are as glamorous as traditional entrepreneurship can seem — you are, after all, working for The Man — there can be practical benefits for both individuals and organizations.
Specifically, Chamorro-Premuzic mentioned money. As a startup founder, you never know "if you're going to be bankrupt in one or two years," he said, adding, "The likely outcomes for founders or entrepreneurs are very bleak." Working under the umbrella of a major corporation provides financial and job security, since you aren't constantly hunting for funding.
The business case for intrapreneurship, according to Chamorro-Premuzic, is simply that companies aren't losing their most driven and most talented people to the startup world. Instead, companies dangle the prospect of relative freedom and creativity and hope that aspiring entrepreneurs will snatch it up.
To be sure, intrapreneurship has its detractors. In 2017, Anderee Berngian listed on VentureBeat all the companies that have closed their innovation labs in the last few years, including Nordstrom, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola. One potential reason Berngian floats: "Google has millions to spare" on failed projects. "Most companies don't."
Business Insider took a look at three corporate innovation labs, the kinds of challenges they're tackling, and the creatives they're hoping to attract.
IKEA's 'global future living lab' aims to head off impending disasters like food insecurity
One of the corporate innovation labs that's received the most media attention is IKEA's Space10. A "global future living lab" launched in Copenhagen in 2015, its creations include hydroponic farms and IKEA Place, an augmented-reality app that lets you see how furniture would look in your home.
"IKEA's overall mission is to create a better everyday life," said Simon Caspersen, cofounder of Space10. "We are basically set up to see how they can live up to that mission in new ways, that their current business is not delivering on." That means tackling current and coming challenges such as food insecurity and loneliness in cities, Caspersen said.
Only 25 people have full-time jobs at Space10. The lab then hires project specialists for temporary stints, or "residencies," as it calls them. Space10 also collaborates with different startups whose interests align with theirs.
Caspersen made the case for working at Space10 this way: "You are put together with some other incredible people that don't necessarily share your background or expertise," adding that "otherwise people often work in silos." An engineer might be working alongside a farmer, for example.
Plus, there's the exposure that a fledgling startup wouldn't ordinarily receive. "We do a lot to really highlight and promote the people that are part of the journey," Caspersen said.
Home Depot's innovation lab is tapping into college students' technological prowess
OrangeWorks is Home Depot's innovation lab, located on the campus of Georgia Tech University in Atlanta. The goal is to evaluate emerging technologies that could change either the customer experience or corporate operations (the lab isn't looking into products that would wind up on shelves).
The lab was launched in 2015, and since then it's produced things like a virtual pallet stacker, which moves heavy items around the warehouse. Anthony Gregorio, a senior manager at the Innovation Center, described the technology that led to the pallet stacker as a "3D Tetris for shipping containers that allows us to be as efficient as we possibly can."
Like Space10, OrangeWorks has a small core team: Just eight people, with varying technical skill sets, work there full time. About 60 Georgia Tech students also pitch in at OrangeWorks. Recently, Gregorio said, the team has been working on ways to use computer vision for inventory tracking and customer-service opportunities.
As for why someone would want to join OrangeWorks instead of starting something on their own, Gregorio said it's all about the "size, scale, and resources that an enterprise like our own can provide."
He used data as a prime example: "If somebody's trying to do something in the data analytics space, readily available data that'll help them build out their model isn't always something that's possible. … Something our size, we're able to provide that."
Accenture's innovation hubs are helping their biggest clients avoid 'disruption' by getting creative
At Accenture, employees know that their clients — which include many Fortune 500 companies — are at constant risk of getting "disrupted" by new technology. That's a major reason why Accenture is working on launching at least 10 innovation hubs in the US by 2020, putting some of the most creative minds in digital technology to work serving their clientele.
"One of the things our clients suffer from a little bit is they're part of large corporations with a lot of cultural inertia," said Bob Markham, managing director at Accenture Digital. "They don't always get exposed to a lot of diversity of thought."
Markham heads up the Chicago innovation hub, which was the first to launch, in 2016. It now has 600 full-time employees and is collaborating with four startups. But Markham said that it can be hard to attract top tech talent in the midwest.
What's more, Markham said, "our large enterprises sometimes have a mentality that they have to do it themselves." However, "oftentimes there are startups that have been thinking about the same problem."
By collaborating with that startup, the organization can have a minimum viable product in four to eight weeks, as opposed to a year, and spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars less than if they were to try to do it on their own," Markham said.
One example is the Washington, DC innovation hub's work with Marriott, whose business has been disrupted by online booking agencies like Kayak and Expedia. Accenture invested in a venturing arm that could help Marriott find startups that were thinking bout "travel experiences," such as a digital concierge.
In return, some startups receive mentoring, and all learn how to scale their product or service in a corporate environment.
Intrapreneurship isn't for everyone
While a job at a corporate innovation lab might seem thrilling, Chamorro-Premuzic sounded a note of caution.
"Not everybody is well-suited for this. It's really a minority of people who will thrive and enjoy and be good at this kind of job," he said. "But I think there's still an opportunity because many young people who decide to launch their own businesses could be employed by these largest corporations and basically do the same thing."