4 innovation lessons from Vancouver’s most forward-thinking enterprises

4 innovation lessons from Vancouver’s most forward-thinking enterprises

4 innovation lessons from Vancouver’s most forward-thinking enterprises

Last month, our COO, Lauren Robinson moderated a panel on Startup Innovation and Corporate New Ventures with Eric Hopkins, Senior Vice President & Chief Strategic Ventures Officer at BCAA, Justin MacCarthy, Director of New Ventures at lululemon athletica, and Jennifer Hamilton, Senior Director, New Ventures, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Innovation at the Vancouver Entrepreneurs’ Forum.

Here are just a few of the learnings:

1. Take a portfolio approach to innovation

While innovation looks very different at each company, a key theme that emerged was that balancing your “innovation portfolio” is key to ensure a successful overall innovation strategy.  This requires commitment to innovation at all levels:

“We’re looking for things from space-age innovation, right through to practical innovation that could improve the products that we already have,” says Jennifer Hamilton.

We were also reminded that innovation doesn’t start and end with products. New approaches to market, customer, or event business model need to be included in a company’s innovation strategy.

For example, J&J has recently partnered with Aspect Biosystems to develop a 3D bioprinted knee meniscus tissue for surgical therapy. “This isn’t something we can put in a package and put on a shelf,” said Jennifer Hamilton. “This would be done almost bedside.”

In recognizing the potential of new technologies, companies like J&J are also realizing the different business models the collaborations would require.

2. Invention ≠ Innovation

Creating or experimenting with new technologies are must-dos for any company – just don’t call it innovation. As Jennifer Hamilton reminded us, “to get from invention to innovation, there has to be a purpose.”

And while this looks different at every company, all three panelists were in agreement that the surest way to avoid the ‘shiny new technology’ trap is to start with the customer. As Justin MacCarthy of lululemon reminded us, this focus on your end user can be quite powerful:

“A lot of people in our industry are looking for something that makes someone run a little bit faster, or jump a little bit higher.  But one of the things we’ve learned along the way is that solving emotional [customer] problems, like how you feel when you’re wearing the clothes, is often more important.”

“Really knowing our customer is what led us to that fundamental insight. It allows us to filter for not just the most exciting technology, but the thing that matters most to our customer.”

3. The answers are not inside the building

Developing strong relationships with startups and other external innovators is high on the priority list for most innovation leaders. Including startups, researchers, and other outside voices in the conversation helps these three innovation teams move faster and keep their teams open to new ideas.

“We know that we’re not experts in everything – and we shouldn’t be,” says Justin MacCarthy.  “External players may have better ideas, be faster to implement them, and be more willing to try things.”

“We acknowledge that some things get done faster on the outside,” echoed Jennifer Hamilton. “There’s a wealth of innovation we’d like to tap into.”

The push to get outside the building isn’t limited to opportunities sourced from outside the company. Justin MacCarthy reminded us that sometimes, ideas that come from within the company will do better on the outside:

“I’m often taking ideas from the innovation group and asking: Can we create a new business out of this? Should this be a new venture? Do we need to interface with people outside of the company?”

4. Sometimes to win like a startup, you have to actually be a startup

If you’re looking to capture the agility, speed, and focus of a startup, the easiest way to do that is to create startup-like conditions.

Creating a separate space, budget, brand, and/or business structure may seem risky – but it can also provide the edge a new venture needs to succeed.

BCAA, for example, launched Evo Car Share – BC’s first four-door car sharing program – out of what Eric Hopkins calls the “T-Shirt Factory”. In an office in the basement of a BCAA warehouse, the early Evo team operated much more like a startup than a 110- year-old-company.

“Creating a net new sub-brand, rather than simply launching car sharing as a product, has been part of the winning formula. It has allowed BCAA to not only provide new offerings to existing members, but also connect with new consumers.”

— Eric Hoskins, Senior Vice President & Chief Strategic Ventures Officer at BCAA

“We felt like there was a real need, but that there were barriers to adoption for that consumer group,” said Eric Hoskins. “In creating a new brand, we wanted to pay homage to our BCAA brand. Our IT, tech teams, and marketing teams are the connective tissue to our core business.”

This seemingly unconventional approach has paid off. The six early members of the Evo team looked at the targets they had pitched to the core business, the funding that they had received, and made it their personal mission to beat every goal. Today, Evo is one of the leading car share providers in BC.


Ultimately, each company’s approach to innovation will be as unique as the enterprise itself.

Building a strong and balanced approach to innovation, focusing on the customer, getting outside the building, and harnessing the speed and exploration of startups are just some of the ways that Vancouver’s leading companies are shaping the future of their industries.

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