Culture and Talent

Inside Northwestern Mutual’s brand new innovation center, Cream City Labs

  • Northwestern Mutual runs various innovation programs.
  • Cream City Labs represents the next step in the company’s innovation journey.

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Inside Northwestern Mutual’s brand new innovation center, Cream City Labs

Earlier this month, Northwestern Mutual announced the grand opening of its innovation lab, Cream City Labs, located at the company’s downtown Milwaukee headquarters. The lab is designed to advance innovation, ideation and experimentation for employees and community partners, including local startups.

Here’s what Northwestern Mutual’s new innovation center, Cream City Labs, looks like

Northwestern Mutual's Cream City Labs Northwestern Mutual's Cream City Labs

Tearsheet sat down with Karl Gouverneur, vice president of digital workplace, corporate solutions and head of digital innovation at Northwestern Mutual to discuss the new facility and NM’s focus on innovation.

With all Northwestern Mutual is doing to innovate, why create a physical space? And why now?

Cream City Labs represents the next step in our company’s innovation journey. About a decade ago we formalized our digital innovation program and our focus on innovation has made it possible to transform to a financial services company with leading digital capabilities. Through innovation programs and initiatives such as our internal venture fund, hackathons and ideation campaigns, over $100 million in business value has been created. We see the value in investing in innovation and wanted to take the next step to make it a permanent physical place in our office.

With Cream City Labs, we created a physical space that is designed to advance innovation, ideation and experimentation for employees and community partners. It is also a dedicated space for mentoring, co-location and innovation focused events such as hackathons, community meetups, STEM programming and training workshops to help advance innovation and technology in southeastern Wisconsin.

How is the lab integrated into your innovation program? How do the work together? What role does it play? How are ideas generated/people integrated into the greater organization? Basically, how do you go from idea to production?

Innovation has taken place throughout our 160+ year history. It’s what has enabled us to transform from a traditional life insurance company to a business focused on helping people achieve financial security.

Ten years ago, we formalized our innovation program and began to place digital at the core of our business strategy. We added new technology, increased our ideation and experimentation, and created an environment that encourages employees to adopt a digital and innovative mindset.

Innovation initiatives include:

  • Enterprise Venture Fund, a semi-annual ideation campaign that solicits ideas from our employees and gives them the opportunity to vote on which ideas they find most compelling. Winning ideas receive funding for further research, development and prototyping if data from experiment supports the value-proposition.
  • Tiger Teams, which pairs cross functional engineering teams with our financial representatives’ offices to identify areas where digital solutions can add value, and then embark on rapid-development exercises to create, test, adjust, and deliver working prototype solutions.
  • NM Launch, an enterprise-wide idea hackathon to generate ideas that could revolutionize and disrupt the way we do business. The winning idea goes through a 12-week internal accelerator program to develop and test the idea to determine market potential.

Cream City Labs provides a dedicated space for these innovation programs, as well as a place for employees to collaborate and run experiments to solve problems in new ways. We will host ideation, planning and design thinking workshops, hackathons and other tech-focused events in the space for both employees and people in the community.

What influenced its design? Did you benchmark other facilities? What were your goals in its design?

Cream City Labs was designed to be a welcoming, inspiring and creative place. The space is all about collaboration and designed to drive innovation, ideation and experimentation.

To benchmark and help inform our planning, we visited several companies, both in our industry and in very different markets, to get an understanding of how others have invested in and use this type of facility. A lot of companies choose to place their innovation lab on the coasts or among regions with strong startup ecosystems. We wanted the lab to be a resource to all employees and a vibrant and inspiring part of our downtown Milwaukee headquarters as we continue our focus to grow Milwaukee as a tech hub.

The modern, industrial feel is different than any other part of our campus and creates a unique experience that compels you forward when you enter – both physically and creatively. The lab pays tribute to our company’s southeastern Wisconsin roots with Milwaukee landmark themed conference rooms and the use of reclaimed and repurposed local materials, including reclaimed wood from family-owned farms in Appleton, Wisconsin. We also worked with more than 15 local businesses for the project that employed more than 80 people.

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