Atlanta’s corporate giants incubate their own startup centers

The culture’s no longer solely for entrepreneurs
On the floor of Georgia-Pacific's Innovation Institute

Photograph by Jeff Herr

As if direct from a catalog for Startups ’R’ Us, a whiteboard covered with entrepreneurial hieroglyphics hangs in a conference room named after a dead guitarist. The walls are exposed brick and slick taupe. Fourteen Wi-Fi access points serve eleven people. There’s free Diet Coke in the communal kitchen. An acoustic guitar leans against the wall next to a bicycle. A pro wrestling action figure stands on a desk that belongs to no one in particular, because all of the desks belong to everyone. Two of the chairs look like giant neon eggs.

Located below Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) in Midtown’s Technology Square, the city’s hub for tech-related entrepreneurship, this office space houses the Foundry. While it has all the trappings of a fledgling firm, the Foundry comes with a serious corporate pedigree: It’s an innovation outpost for AT&T that, with Cisco’s backing, focuses on new products and applications related to home security and connected cars.

The Atlanta Foundry mimics a spunky startup, and that’s by design. The idea is to borrow from the entrepreneurial world not just the reclaimed barn-wood ceilings and foosball tables with cupholders, but also the business model that allows for more creativity and flexibility than is typically possible within the walls and the complicated hierarchy of a behemoth business.

While most projects inside AT&T proper get kicked off with fifty-page documents that outline every last requirement, projects in the Foundry generally can be succinctly described on two bullet-pointed pages. And while some AT&T ideas can take years to wend their way through the company and turn into something definite, innovations from the Foundry can go from idea to prototype in ninety days.

The concept of fostering an entrepreneurial culture by stealing from Atlanta’s thriving community of startups is catching on at other big businesses. Chick-fil-A turned a concrete warehouse into Hatch, an innovation hub where employees ride bikes from the design studio to the offices to the Incubator, an 80,000-square-foot space equipped with rolling chairs and tables to make ad hoc teamwork more feasible. Coca-Cola partnered with Up Global, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship, to host a fifty-four-hour “startup weekend” during which 100 employees presented open-mic pitches, formed teams, and learned to create and launch ideas. The event was held in Coke’s innovation department, where there are no cubicles
or desks—everyone sits around tables—and eight-foot-tall whiteboards on wheels create
temporary dividers.

Newell Rubbermaid, the Sandy Springs–headquartered company synonymous with storage containers but whose holdings include Sharpie markers and Goody barrettes, recently hired Nate Young to take on the newly created position of vice president of global innovation after he led business workshops that focused on “creative culture” and “transformative thinking.” And Turner Broadcasting System’s Cartoon Network now has an in-house program called AYAKM Inc., which encourages employees and interns from the Animation, Young Adults, and Kids Media division to step outside their normal duties and submit ideas for new shows and products in a more free-form fashion.

“It’s tougher than ever for corporations to continue to be competitive in the environment we have,” says Carie Davis, the global director of innovation and entrepreneurship for Coca-Cola. “We took all the cues from how startups and entrepreneurs are working, how they’re different, and we’re incorporating that into the day-to-day of everyone here.”

In the entrepreneurial movement, innovation is a popular buzzword, of course. But the main reason these large corporations are mimicking mini-businesses is that the small fries can move fast. The big guys often are too lumbering, with protocols too cumbersome to be nimble enough to respond quickly to a shorter and shorter business cycle.

Take Georgia-Pacific, for example. The eighty-seven-year-old company has about 35,000 employees worldwide, with about 6,500 at nineteen facilities in Georgia. But just twenty-five people work in Georgia-Pacific’s Innovation Institute, a 25,000-square-foot facility in Norcross that brings together packaging engineers, designers, lab technicians, and scientists to focus on building the perfect box.

“We are able to take ideas from concept to design to testing to shelf all in one facility, allowing us to create solutions that will work throughout the supply chain,” says Brian Reilly, senior director of research and technology for Georgia-Pacific’s Innovation Institute. “It’s more efficient to have the team located at a facility where they can work collaboratively with each other and with customers, no matter which plants provide the product.”

So if a wine company wants to reduce the amount of cardboard in its shipping boxes without endangering its product, while also having those boxes look nice on a shopping-club shelf, the workers at the Innovation Institute can brainstorm, design, prototype, test, and analyze the new box in one place at a much faster rate.

The look of the Innovation Institute is tried-and-true startup, with an open floor plan and only a rare few individual offices, and even those have glass walls that show off one employee’s clay figurines from the Monsters, Inc. movie and another’s whiteboard rendering of a pony in a field.

Out on the main floor are several distinct store environments, with lifelike but fake fruit on display next to stacks of paper plates, bags of rice, and packs of diapers. The refrigerator case isn’t cold, and the cheese inside the Sargento packaging is actually shredded paper, but the displays still give the employees a good idea of how a box will function and look in the real world.

The artsy people work upstairs in the “design loft,” and the science geeks experiment in the “chamber of horrors,” where boxes are soaked in water, smushed under 50,000-pound compressors, dropped from heights, and rammed into a backstop. They’re put into a freezer called “the Arctic,” or a superhot and humid closet called “the jungle,” or a refrigerated chamber called “the cave,” all in an effort to test the boxes’ durability under any conceivable shipping condition.

So if a box falls apart during a simulated East-to-West truck ride, the engineers can just walk down the hall to reconfigure the product with the designers instead of getting bogged down by complex procedures and far-flung locations.

“This is faster and more effective,” says Patrick Smorch, director of packaging sustainability at Georgia-

The same can be said for the processes in place at AT&T’s Foundry, which opened in August and is one of just five in the world. One employee there built a small wooden home they call “the digital doghouse,” outfitted with just about every in-home security device—cameras, motion sensors, and the like—offered by AT&T. Next to the doghouse is the guts of the technology, which allows the Foundry folks to make tweaks while they test new products and software.

Even though the Foundry’s staff is working on proprietary technologies and products, the facility isn’t shut off from the rest of the entrepreneurs in Technology Square. The storefront is all glass, inviting to passersby, and the Foundry frequently asks Georgia Tech students and innovative thinkers from local startups to come by and collaborate.

“This isn’t just within a bubble,” says Christyna Chandler, marketing manager at the Atlanta Foundry. “We created this concept and structured the Foundries to make it much easier to be able to work and collaborate with outside folks.”

The Foundry also stays in constant contact with AT&T, which has its Southeast headquarters just a few blocks away, so that these innovations can fit within the big company’s structure and don’t get caught in a corporate logjam.

“We’re such a small organization in comparison to the rest of AT&T,” Chandler says. “We are looking to infect the rest of the company.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2014 issue.