31 Corporate Innovation Labs to Know

Nested inside major corporations, these nimble startups thrive on outside-the-box invention.

November 22, 2019
Updated: November 27, 2019
Written by Mae Rice

It’s a tale as old as the 21st century: Startups snatch market share from established corporations. Streaming services like Hulu plan to “ruin TV” for established TV networks. Airbnb has shaken things up for established hospitality chains. Direct-to-consumer retail startups, like Everlane and Away, have sparked an identity crisis for established retail conglomerates. 

Top Corporate Innovation Labs

  • Kohl's Innovation Center
  • Google[x]
  • Amazon Lab126
  • Verizon 5G Labs
  • Volkswagen Automative Innovation Lab
  • Staples' Velocity Lab
  • Coca-Cola's KOLab
  • Lowe's Innovation Lab
  • Capital One Labs

Here’s why: startups are small and nimble, which makes them powerful agents of change. Besides not being invested in the status quo, they can easily pivot to new products and adopt entirely new business models. From an agility standpoint, big companies just can’t compete. But many are trying.

In recent years, a slew of Fortune 500 companies have established their own internal startups. Often called “innovation labs,” these experimental workplaces are cordoned off from the parent companies and have a straightforward mission: create disruptive new technology before external competitors do.

Interested in who’s doing what? Here are 31 of the top innovation labs in America.

 

kohl's innovation center
Kohl's Innovation Center

Kohl's Innovation Center

Location: Menomenee Falls, Wis. 

Kohl’s information technology teams used to be housed in three different buildings on the company’s campus. As a result, they had a tough time collaborating. In 2015, though, Kohl’s opened its 369,000-square-foot Innovation Center in a remodeled warehouse, and all the company’s technology teams — as well as professionals in store planning, construction and purchasing — converged under the same roof. 

"We get so much more done so much more quickly than we could before," Janet Schalk, Kohl’s then-chief information officer, told Fox in 2015.

That’s due to a mix of physical closeness, a collegial culture and the energizing nature of the space itself, which is full of bright colors and natural light. 


 

google x
Google[X]

Google[x]

Location: Mountain View, Calif.

Seemingly everyone had an opinion about Google Glass when the smart glasses debuted in 2014. Both a cult favorite and a source of controversy, they could project emails and driving directions onto their lenses and also had various recording capabilities. Were they a form of surveillance? The future of personal computing? 

Whatever the case, they were definitely game-changing. And like many of Google’s game-changing projects, they started in Google[x] — the lab where a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs attempt to take moonshots from concept to reality. The guiding philosophy there is that it can be useful to radically reimagine what’s possible, especially when it comes to intractable issues like clean energy and connectivity. However, the team works on product updates, too. Recently, the Google[x] team released a new version of Google Glass, designed for factories and other workplaces where employees could ideally use their hands and the internet simultaneously.

 

amazon lab126
Amazon Lab126

Amazon Lab126

Location: Sunnyvale, Calif.

In 2003, Amazon founded this lab with a simple directive: reinvent the book. Lab126 devoted years to the project, releasing the first Kindle in 2007. It sold out in 5.5 hours. Since then, the lab’s hardware, software and operations teams have further streamlined the device. 

“We really didn’t want any bezel or bling,” Chris Green, Lab 126’s VP of Design, told TechCrunch. “Everything we’ve done over 15 generations has been to reduce [the Kindle] to basically a piece of paper.”

They’ve gotten impressively close. Modern kindles weigh less than their clunkier predecessors and have no keypads or buttons. Lab126 does more than just Kindles, though — they conceptualize and finesse all Amazon hardware, which includes Amazon Fire TVs and tablets and the Amazon Echo, which houses the smart and widely known personal assistant Alexa. The team strives to make these gadgets powerful, easy to use and genuinely fun.

 

verizon 5g labs
Verizon 5G Labs

Verizon 5G Labs

Location: Waltham, Mass.

Scattered up and down both coasts, these labs focus on preparing Verizon’s 5G network for rollout. 5G is short for “fifth generation,” which means it will likely be faster than 4G and so innovatively coded that it’s incompatible with current technology. Consequently, it will usher in a flood of new hardware and apps. Collaborating with academics, industry leaders and cutting-edge startups, Verizon leaders dream up 5G use cases and capabilities. Since 2018, the Waltham-based lab, in particular, has focused on the strengths of the Boston-area tech scene: robotics, healthcare and real-time enterprise solutions.

 

volkswagen automotive innovation lab
Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab

Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab

Location: Stanford, Calif.

Led by three Stanford professors, the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab, or VAIL, is located on campus at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (a.k.a. CARS). Its  interdisciplinary teams comprised of academics and Volkswagen partners from Silicon Valley, among others, work to invent cars of the future. And, yes, that includes driverless cars. In fact, Volkswagen’s team has been working on autonomous vehicles since the early aughts; in 2005, a Volkswagen Touareg SUV drove itself more than 100 miles in the Mojave Desert. It was  a first for the auto industry, and Volkswagen has been building on that success ever since. At VAIL, experts work on machine-learning-enabled autonomous cars that could one day drive on busy streets. Other teams work on solar-powered vehicles and research the nuances of human-machine interactions in a driving simulator.

 

staples velocity lab
Staples' Velocity Lab

Staples’ Velocity Lab

Location: Cambridge, Mass.

Launched in 2012, this lab in Cambridge’s Kendall Square aims to reinvent e-commerce, creating a unified shopping experience across mobile, desktop, and brick-and-mortar stores. 

"The vision for this center is to create a place where we can test, learn and iterate as rapidly as possible around new technologies," Staples’ e-commerce senior vice president Brian Tilzer told Boston.com

That’s a modern effort for a store named after analog technology  — but the office supply chain has changed a  lot since its first location opened in 1986. In addition to launching a digital store, it has forged partnerships with tech giants like Google. At Velocity Lab, the company has made further investments in collaboration; the 75-seat-space has an open layout that encourages interdepartmental communication, and it’s walking distance from the offices of various tech partners.

 

coca cola kolab
Coca-Cola's KOLab

Coca-Cola’s KOLab

Location: Atlanta, Ga.

Coca-Cola’s KOLab is an open secret. The  people who work in the actual building must sign NDAs, Marketing Week reports, because it’s where the beverage giant develops new products that range from drinks to digital features. But seeing as it’s conspicuously located on the company’s main campus, vendors are often invited to visit and check out new offerings. They can also taste new drinks that are paired with gourmet meals from a chef station and stroll through simulations in KOLab’s virtual reality experience. The latter allows them to see how new beverages might appear on a store shelf, or how customers might interact with new coolers. 

 

lowes innovation labs
Lowe's Innovation Labs

Lowe’s Innovation Labs

Location: Multiple locations

Home improvement is a stubbornly analog art — you can’t install a new patio online. Not an actual one, anyway. Lowe’s View in Your Space app lets users scan their surroundings briefly and create a 3D virtual replica of their space, which they can modify with potential purchases and renovations. They can then tour their cyber-home, evaluating the additions from every angle. The cutting-edge tech laboratory, created to help the Fortune 50 company maintain its competitive edge, has also experimented with on-demand 3D printing and robotic exoskeletons that help employees lift heavy objects.

 

capital one labs
Capital One Labs

Capital One Labs

Location: New York City and Alrington, Va. 

This lab’s two locations focus on solving potential problems that might occur at the intersection of finance and tech. That means studying user behavior, empathizing with pain points and designing new online banking features.  Though much of this interdisciplinary team’s work remains confidential, they’ve streamlined the training of machine learning algorithms (which can take months!) and redesigned the credit card, among other projects

 

nike s23nyc
Nike's S23NYC

Nike’s S23NYC

Location: New York City

On Nike’s SNKRS app, launched in 2015, the luckiest and quickest-thumbed users can snap up limited edition sneakers. (Exhibit A: Rapper Travis Scott’s spin on the Air Jordan 1, decorated with a backwards swoosh.) For sneaker lovers and resellers, that’s a huge deal — and the numbers prove it. In the 2018 fiscal year, SNKRS accounted for 20 percent of Nike’s digital business and was the company’s fastest-growing app, even though it launched years ago.

But many users leave in-app launches disappointed; the supply of limited-edition sneakers is, after all, limited. To help remedy that, teams of marketers, designers and engineers at Nike’s in-house Agency S23NYC focus on making the app satisfying in other ways, too. From their tiny studio in the Flatiron District, they dream up “slightly mischievous” features — like a recent one that allows gamers with ultra-high myPLAYER ratings to unlock a pair of purple LeBron 17s in SNKRS. 

 

state farm red labs
State Farm's RED Labs

State Farm’s RED Labs

Location: Bloomington, Ill. 

Nestled inside State Farm’s Bloomington’s headquarters, this internal lab creates tech features that put insurance giant ahead of the curve. Recently, for instance, the team developed a way to use aerial images from the eBee+ drone to model risk and assess damage on plots of land. That not only helps State Farm clients rebuild quickly after hurricanes and other extreme weather, it helps the company at large to model and prepare for the long-term toll of climate change. Though RED Labs keeps a low profile, the incubator has also worked on blockchain products and virtual reality-based training.

 

dell emc hpc innovation lab
Dell EMC's HPC Innovation Lab

Dell EMC’s HPC Innovation Lab

Location: Austin, Texas

This lab’s crown jewel is Zenith, a supercomputer with more than 27,000 cores that ranks amongst the fastest in the world. Housed in a 13,000-foot warehouse, it’s manned by experts with advanced degrees in topics like bioinformatics. They work with clients to turn petabytes of data into concrete solutions, like an autonomous mining truck or optimized manufacturing tools. There’s no pressing need to visit the lab in person, either. The team disseminates their expertise through whitepapers and blog posts. They share their computing power widely, too; clients can remotely access the lab’s myriad servers.  

 

warnermedia innovation labs
WarnerMedia Innovation Lab

WarnerMedia Innovation Lab

Location: New York City

Slated to open in March of 2020, this lab’s team will meld WarnerMedia entertainment and AT&T technology into a futuristic content juggernaut. The two-story, 20,000-square-foot Chelsea space will be one of the first offices permanently outfitted with AT&T’s 5G technology. The ultra-fast internet hasn’t yet debuted commercially, but it should allow associates to explore features like “experience fluidity” — a viewing experience that spans a range of IoT devices, including phones, smart TVs and car screens. The team will also explore more immersive and responsive advertising options that provide marketers with ultra-granular engagement data.
 

walmart labs
Walmart Labs

Walmart Labs

Location: Multiple locations (three in California)

Walmart Labs each consist of constellations of hyper-focused mini-startups. One specializes in  customer technology, another in analytics and yet another in supply chain technology. To date, lab teams have largely eliminated duplicates from Walmart’s online catalog and built an express returns feature into the Walmart app, which cut return transaction time by 75 percent. Because Walmart is the country’s biggest company, Lab innovations also scale out rapidly.

 

zx ventures
ZX Ventures

ZX Ventures

Location: Multiple locations

This innovation lab connects Anheuser Busch InBev’s global supply chains and epic marketing machinery with a portfolio of beer-related startups. And ZX Ventures leadership interprets “beer-related” broadly, investing money and other accelerator resources in companies focused on everything from hard kombucha to drone delivery technology. The result is a win-win: a growth opportunity for nascent businesses and a way for ABI to stay at the forefront of its industry. 

 

hp labs
HP Labs

HP Labs

Location: Palo Alto, Calif. 

This high-tech lab operate on the edge. In-house researchers work on literal edge computing projects, like swarm computing technology, which would allow engineers to train AI algorithms on vast stores of sensor data without centralizing it first. But the team also works on projects at the very edge of possibility, like chaos computing and other alternative, approximate computing models. Like quantum computing, these models rely on fluid computational engines rather than zeros and ones, but they’re more immediately feasible.

 

microsoft research
Microsoft Research

Microsoft Research 

Location: Redmond, Wash.

Founded way back in 1991 as one of the first innovation labs, it was designed to foster collaboration between Microsoft engineers and academics in computer science and beyond. And it worked. Microsoft Research now has multiple locations around the world and more than 1,000 employees. Many team members have PhDs and insights into highly theoretical realms, which they use to concrete hardware and software with the help of Microsoft product teams. Various internal groups work on everything from advancing cryptography to technology — including a wearable light therapy device — that promotes emotional well-being’.

 

cisco hyper innovation living labs
Cisco Hyper Innovation Living Labs

Cisco Hyper Innovation Living Labs 

Location: Secret
The Cisco Hyper Innovation Living Labs (CHILL) lacks an established office. Instead, the themed 48-hour workshops touch down quarterly in undisclosed cities around the world. At each one, small groups of CEOs and SVPs brainstorm products relevant to the lab’s theme. It could be “supply chain blockchain applications” or, more broadly, “the future of work.” 

By the end of the first day, teams begin prototyping their visions, working with engineers and 3D printers.  ("CHILL is all about doing as a form of learning,” CHILL senior innovation architect Shannon Lucas has said.) By the end of the second day, teams pitch their product to panels of executives at Cisco and partner companies. Typically, one or two of the five startups at each CHILL go to market. 

 

accenture innovation centers
Accenture Innovation Centers

Accenture Innovation Centers

Location: Multiple locations

Accenture’s more than 100 Innovation Centers focus less on creating new technology and more on applying it. Each center focuses on a different area. The Washington, D.C. one, for instance, is all about cybersecurity. At the San Francisco center, visitors can don VR headsets to more realistically explore customer experience. The centers span 40 industries in all and add a new facet to Accenture’s client relationships. In addition to talking with representatives, clients can visit brick-and-mortar spaces dedicated to their respective industries or more holistic strategic challenges like “breakthrough thinking.” (That’s London’s specialty.) 
 

at&t labs research
AT&T Labs Research

AT&T Labs Research

Location: Dallas, Texas 

This lab creates ultra-modern technology, like the 5G network rolling out at WarnerMedia Innovation Lab. The team’s inventions, however, also maximize existing technology — like plain old laptops. Their signature Nanocubes program, for example, allows users to parse massively complex geographic and temporal datasets on laptops, zooming in on specific regions or time intervals at will. AT&T uses this fresh-from-the-lab technology to analyze tens of billions of data points related to user mobility, security and more. 

 

at&t foundry
AT&T Foundry

AT&T Foundry

Location: Multiple locations

While AT&T’s foundry is no metalworking shop, it places a similar emphasis on craft and creation. The raw material: tech. At the flagship foundry in Palo Alto and five others around the globe, teams of designers, developers and businesspeople develop industry-specific prototypes for clients that might include healthcare providers, retail companies, transportation enterprises and others. And no matter what Foundry teams make, collaboration is key. They work closely with each other, their clients and a steady stream of outside startups — a whopping 500 of which Foundry management meets with annually.

 

visa one market center
Visa's One Market Center

Visa’s One Market Center

Location: San Francisco

Visa’s credit cards may be ubiquitous, but they’re more widely used than understood. Hence One Market Center — one of Visa’s five Innovation Centers, whose address is also its name  — where visitors can learn about the popular card’s inner workings in a space that’s specifically designed for tech tutorials and experimentation. On brief drop-in visits, clients are educated about Visa’s latest authentication and IoT technology. During longer (one- or two-day) workshops, clients can delve deeper and prototype custom products rooted in Visa’s API.

 

jp morgan chase financial solutions lab
JP Morgan Chase's Financial Solutions Lab

JP Morgan Chase’s Financial Solutions Lab

Location: San Francisco

With $50 million in funding from JP Morgan Chase, this lab seeks scalable, tech-based answers to a simple question: how can low- and middle-income people improve their financial health? In an effort to scale these solutions, the company hosts an annual eight-month startup accelerator centered on a different type of tech. In 2018, it was workplace fintech — financial health tools for workers provided through employers. This year, covered workforce fintech — similar tools designed for workers to use directly. So far, the accelerator has funded and nurtured more than 40 startups, which have purportedly saved their users a cumulative total of more than $1 billion.

 

sephora innovation lab
Sephora Innovation Lab

Sephora Innovation Lab

Location: San Francisco

Makeup might not sound high-tech, but it is at Sephora. Cutting-edge technology developed in the company’s Innovation Lab — a converted warehouse in the Mission Bay District — is one of Sephora’s secret weapons against department store makeup counters and digital native beauty brands alike. Recently, in two New York stores, the company unveiled its latest Innovation Lab production:  “Tap and Try.” Drawing on augmented reality and RFID technology, it lets consumers virtually apply makeup products simply by scanning them. It’s an upgrade to Sephora Virtual Artist, a feature in the Sephora app (also from the Innovation Lab) that lets users try makeup at home and learn from makeup tutorials structured around their own faces. 

 

gs accelerate
GS Accelerate

GS Accelerate

Location: New York City

This in-house incubator isn't for any old startup — it's only for startups run by employees at Goldman Sachs. And while Goldman may be a financial services giant, roughly a third of the company's workforce is is engineers full of game-changing ideas. That makes the accelerator a win-win for Goldman Sachs: In addition to developing a steady stream new technology, it also helps retain team members who might otherwise depart to found their own startups.

Here's how GS Accelerate works: Teams of two to six employees pitch their ideas via an online form. (Historically, ideas have ranged from apps for digitizing workflows to tech for a 24-hour gym.) If an idea gets picked for the accelerator — and with an acceptance rate of less than 1 percent, the odds are slim — the team gets two years of paid leave to develop their startup at the in-house incubator, backed by Goldman Sachs resources.

Related: Goldman Sachs is Giving its Most Entrepreneurial Employees a Paid Two-Year Break to Launch Startups.  

 

panasonic automotive innovation center
Panasonic Automotive Innovation Center

Panasonic Automotive Innovation Center

Location: Atlanta, Ga. 

At the Panasonic Automotive Innovation Center, professionals and Georgia Tech students work together to invent the next car radio. More than just a radio (though it will probably have radio capabilities), it will be a human machine interface (or HMI) capable of tapping into various streams of information and entertainment. It could, for instance, connect to social media, streaming TV or podcasting apps. The possibilities are many, but all of them require strong communication between software engineers, mechanical engineers and lots of other tech professionals — precisely what this space was designed to facilitate. 

 

delta the hangar
Delta's The Hangar

Delta’s The Hangar

Location: Atlanta, Ga. 

Air travel is a bureaucratic process that’s rife with regulation, record locator numbers and shoe removal. But at Delta’s The Hangar, an innovation lab 30 minutes from the company’s main headquarters, team members focus on simplifying it. Since its founding in 2016, the center’s cross-functional team of designers, researchers and engineers has built a bevy of new tools for that purpose. One allows users to pre-select their in-flight meal via chatbot. Another, rolled out at 16 gates at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, lets users board planes using only their face as a ticket; cameras confirm that it’s really them as they board. 

 

mckinsey digital labs
McKinsey Digital Labs

McKinsey Digital Labs

Location: Multiple locations

McKinsey Digital Labs functions as a kind of freelance innovation lab. Instead of nesting inside a major corporation, a variety of companies hire this global team of designers, data scientists and software engineers for one-off tech projects. They’re ambitious and fast-paced; the team once built an IoT platform for a telecom company in nine months. On another occasion, they revamped a pizza chain’s online ordering platform, boosting conversions by 40 percent. Aware that tech can be a high-risk venture, McKinsey’s pros also help clients strategize before investing in a project to ensure it fits with their company’s business model. 
 

comcast labs
Comcast Labs

Comcast Labs

Location: Multiple locations

Comcast Labs’ team consists of more than 1,000 experts, including PhDs, engineers, inventors, communications professionals and others. They work at outposts in five different American cities, but they overcome the distance between them by working on multi-city “virtual teams” and collaborating remotely to develop cutting-edge new products. So far, they’ve created an array of multi-platform entertainment options. The Xfinity TV Go app, for instance, lets users stream 35 live TV channels on their smartphones. 

 

citi innovation labs
Citi Innovation Labs

Citi Innovation Labs

Location: Multiple locations

Not everyone who works at Citibank’s innovation labs comes from a banking background. In fact, many employees come from start-ups, the marketing world and even nuclear research laboratories. The diversity of perspectives in the labs leads to exciting new beta products, designed for the markets of the near future (read: three to five years from now). In the New York City innovation lab, for instance, user phones double as credit cards, and they can scroll through sales data on a completely touch-screen wall.  

 

starbucks tryer center
Starbucks' Tryer Center

Starbucks’ Tryer Center

Location: Seattle 

The Tryer Center, a lab on the ground floor of Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters, looks like a functioning Starbucks store. And in many ways, it is. Every piece of machinery in it is fully functional, including the drive-through window. But every piece can also be moved, like a stage set. The equipment rolls on wheels; the cardboard walls shift easily. In other words, the space is flexible and innovative, just like the projects it was designed to incubate. Founded in late 2018, the center has so far produced more than 130 new projects, ranging from “fail soup” (a branded soup few people bought) to a new Starbucks app feature that enables voice-ordering. There’s only one hard and fast rule: each Tryer innovation gets implemented in 100 days or less. That way, if a product tanks, it tanks fast and the team can move on. 

 

Images via Shutterstock, social media and company websites.

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