Alliance Blog

Exploring Corporate Innovation: from Moonshots to Mickey Mouse

Our corporate partners play a foundational role in supporting and elevating the SoCal innovation ecosystem. As a strategic super connector, we particularly enjoy bringing our corporate innovation leaders together to see first-hand the amazing innovation assets of the region and learn from their impressive peer group. In the last several weeks, we hosted two installments of our Leadership Engagement and Discussion (LEAD) series: one focused on moonshot thinking at NASA JPL and one focused on fostering a culture of innovation and risk taking (in partnership with GIANT Innovation) at the eye-popping StudioLAB at the Walt Disney Company. These impressive centers of innovation provide the perfect backdrops for our discussions. The JPL sessions illuminated the need for thinking big to achieve the quantum leap, while the Disney session was about expanding the group who helps drive an innovation agenda. I wanted to share a quick recap and a few insights from these two incredible sessions while also thanking our collaborator and phenomenal hosts.

Moonshot Thinking @JPL

Discussing moonshot thinking at JPL with Teddy Tzanetos (NASA JPL), Andy Wilson (Alliance), and Maurizio Vecchione (Terasaki Institute)

Our group, mostly corporate leaders, gathered at the JPL visitors center and museum which is an impressive chronology of the numerous JPL missions including historic artifacts, before we began an incredible tour of the sprawling JPL campus with specific visits to the “Mars Yard” and mission control center where we learned about their unofficial peanut tradition.

Upon our return to the visitor center, we were welcomed by JPL Director Laurie Leshin who highlighted JPL’s history and innovative work in space exploration. She suggested that given JPL’s current program priorities, we should rename our discussion session “Mars-shot Thinking” instead of Moonshot! 

We then heard from Maurizio Vecchione, the Chief Innovation Officer of the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation who shared his reflections on moonshot thinking. He stressed the critical importance of understanding the core problem you are looking to solve, and the necessity for interdisciplinary collaboration to solve those problems. He reflected on his ten years working with Bill Gates as Executive Vice President at Intellectual Ventures (IV) and how they prioritized healthcare innovation by looking at disability-adjusted life years (DALY) and years of healthy life lost due to disability (YLDs). 

We next heard from Teddy Tzanetos, the impressive project leader for the Mars Ingenuity helicopter project at JPL (I love the fact that his previous job was Head of Technology for the Drone Racing League). The Ingenuity project was a quick $80M – $90M “Technology Demonstration Mission” to determine if aerial flight was even possible on Mars which has one-third the gravity but only 1% of the atmospheric density of Earth. Teddy characterized the Tech Demo approach as “High risk, high reward, low budget. If it works, great. If it doesn’t work that is okay too.” As you probably know, Ingenuity not only flew on Mars, but completed 72 flights. A big overachiever! Teddy talked about pushing boundaries in aerospace engineering by applying a combination of open-source tools, off the shelf technologies, and engaging key partners such as AeroVironment who was a critical commercial partner. 

These mini case studies were followed by a group discussion about pursuing moonshots in healthcare and other fields, including challenges related to stakeholder needs, scalability, complexity in healthcare systems, funding mechanisms for startups, category creation, and new business models. We delved into the need to reward risk-taking and failure and the challenges associated with quarter-to-quarter thinking that permeates public companies. We were fortunate to be able to continue this lively discussion over cocktails and appetizers in the impressive JPL museum surrounded by an incredible display of decades of successful moonshot (and Mars-shot) thinking.

Creating Cultures of Innovation @Studio Lab

The group is welcomed by Jamie Voris, EVP/Chief Technology Officer at The Walt Disney Studios

We kicked off our afternoon with a special insider’s tour of the Walt Disney StudioLAB which is both a place and program dedicated to Disney storytelling through new technology — located in the heart of the historic Walt Disney Studios lot in the iconic old Animation Building. Disney StudioLAB has been recently reconfigured to follow the production cycle from ideation to story development, production, postproduction, and special effects. I was particularly impressed by the demo of aging technology used to alter the age of people (I definitely prefer the younger version of myself!). They also had a cool demo of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Rocket mimicking your behavior, captured through an iPhone. Exciting to think how all of this will enhance our entertainment experiences!

After a brief welcome from The Walt Disney Studios EVP/Chief Technology Officer, Jamie Voris, our co-host David Dabscheck from GIANT Innovation kicked off our discussion with an overview of the 3 key ingredients for an everyday innovator program: Mindsets, Skillsets, and Rule-sets. 

  • Mindsets are the underlying attitudes and beliefs that will drive your program. David highlighted the importance of encouraging team members to ask questions and challenge the status quo. He noted that too often people are discouraged from rocking the boat. 
  • Skillsets are the practices and methodologies that define your innovation program. Basic training in problem identification, design thinking, and customer engagement will get the ball rolling.
  • Finally, Rule-sets are the structures, incentives, and climate that allow innovation to be practiced. This is about walking the talk. He reminded us that innovation thinking applies well beyond the world of technology to leaders of all types who are looking to improve their worlds.

We were fortunate to have one of David’s corporate clients and collaborators Jodie Brinkerhoff, VP of Innovation at DFW Airport, share her own journey focused on scaling innovation impact with everyday innovators while transforming the future of travel. She shared her robust portfolio of activities focused on process, programs and people including tech talks, office hours, boot camps, and her BOOST Employee Innovation Challenge. She previewed a problem solving training video that warned about HIPPO’s (highest paid person’s opinion) limiting engagement and creativity. She ended by highlighting the need for collaboration and an expansive innovation ecosystem. 

We often don’t think of academic/educational institutions as being particularly innovative other than perhaps ASU (ranked Most Innovative by US News and World Report nine years in a row, ahead of Stanford, MIT, and Caltech). We invited Maria Anguiano, EVP of Learning Enterprise at ASU, to highlight how the school “is measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed.” She described how the education function across all areas at ASU is supported through a collaboration of the Academic, Knowledge and Learning Enterprise Functions. She highlighted that every learner’s journey is unique and can span age ranges from 1 to 96. When asked how as a state school ASU could be so nimble she cited that ASU essentially operates as a mission-driven, public enterprise model with only some core support from the State (~10% of their budget). This entrepreneurial approach allows them flexibility to pursue their mission and serve a diverse learning population of ~150k students and ~450K learners wherever they are. This is unlike the UC system which operates more like a state agency.

These three perspectives sparked a lively conversation. For example, rather than “buy-in” to innovation programs and initiatives it was suggested that it would be better to have others “join-in.” There was some disagreement whether the innovation group should be segregated from the core so as not to be burdened with tactical concerns or if it should be more closely integrated with the broader team to help drive cultural change. There were recurring themes about rewarding smart risk taking and celebrating failure as well as the need for incentive programs to drive behavior change. One thing was clear: having an innovation mindset is more important than ever. As leaders, we need to be intentional about this change which is a lot more than having a cool room on campus with bean bag chairs where a few innovation junkies go to play. . . . 

In Summary

The Alliance has hosted dozens of these leadership discussions over the past 5+ years, and I continue to discover impressive new innovation centers in our massive region. More importantly, I feel a growing sense of collaboration across this leadership community. We all share a bold mission to drive our business forward in a time of accelerating change. Though we are highly capable individuals, we know that we are traversing new territory so greatly value the shared learning and camaraderie of fellow adventurers. If you are a senior corporate innovation leader in SoCal on this journey please reach out so we can add you to the mix.