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Business Report

EMC Looks to TV for an Innovation Model

Tech giant EMC is trying a different method of funding innovative ideas.

Three years ago, inspired by the hit TV show Shark Tank, the marketing department of the data storage and software company EMC launched a new program aimed at generating innovative ideas. Called Launch Pad, it replicates many aspects of the TV show. It too features businesspeople going in front of a panel to ask for money to fund their big ideas. It is filmed on a set with bright lights and a live (though small) audience, and it is broadcast to the 50,000 employees in EMC offices around the world. Executives from around the company serve as judges, filling the role played by investor Mark Cuban, real estate expert Barbara Corcoran, and others on Shark Tank.

There are differences, too. The set is located in the back of a mothballed office building in a Boston suburb, and while tough questions may be asked, the tone is decidedly less confrontational at EMC. Most important, the show is the tail end of an innovation process that probably has a bigger payoff than the competition itself.

Once contestants submit ideas, volunteer mentors, called “idea rustlers,” spend weeks helping them fine-tune the proposals, figuring out budgets, and vetting them with other sections of the company that might be expected to play a role. Ideas are first reviewed on an online platform, and though dozens are submitted, just three will make this quarter’s taping.

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“Whether you’ve just graduated from college or have been at EMC 10 years, everyone has the opportunity to put an idea forward and have that showcased,” says Kristen Garvey, director of EMC internal communications and a judge on a recent Launch Pad show.

On the spring 2015 show, filmed seven months before the announcement of EMC’s record-breaking $67 billion acquisition by Dell and private equity firm Silver Lake, Dan Kessler, a program manager in integrated marketing, pitched one of two ideas that were successful. His idea was to offer current and prospective clients a free assessment of their storage systems by a third party. For those without issues, that would be it, an exercise in building good will for EMC. But for those with issues, EMC would then follow up with information about the company products that could address the problems. The cost for a 90-day pilot would be $62,500, but Kessler had calculated from an earlier limited program that paying $75 per assessment earned back $190 per client.

The judges seemed enthusiastic from the start, asking questions about details of implementation. One judge asked what Kessler’s plan would be for the period after the first 90 days. Later as the judges deliberated, one asked why, given the expected return on investment, there was even any question about whether to do it.

Sitting in the audience was Elizabeth Correnti, an earlier Launch Pad winner whose idea for an internal digital news program, EMC in :60, led to what’s now a big part of her job. EMC in :60 was the first real business pitch of her career, Correnti says. Now 1,500 staff members watch her weekly combination of company news and educational programming.

“We wanted to set the tone that it’s okay to innovate and take risks,” says Thom Lytle, director of the company’s social-media efforts, who emcees the shows and helps run the mentoring before the events.

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