Lessons from Corporate Innovators

Dennis Boecker — Founder of Chicago Connectory

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Episode 4: Dennis Boecker — Founder of Chicago Connectory

On this week’s episode of Agile Giants, I am joined by Dennis Boecker. In some ways, this is really a continuation of last week’s conversation with Terry Lonier.

Dennis built one of the innovation labs that Terri talked about, the Chicago Connectory. It’s a fascinating coworking space and innovation center that I would encourage you to check out if you’re in the Chicago area.

I enjoyed the entire conversation, but particularly:

  1. The story of starting The Chicago Connectory (starting 6:46)
  2. Dennis’ transition from IT to innovation (starting at 9:55 & back again at 17:39)
  3. Dennis’ perspective on IoT (starting at 19:24)

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Full Transcript

Sean Ammirati: 00:08 Welcome to Agile Giants: Lessons from Corporate Innovators. I’m Sean Ammirati, your host, Co-founder and Director of the Carnegie Mellon Corporate Startup Lab and partner at the Early Stage Venture Capital Fund, Birchmere Ventures.

Sean Ammirati: 00:22 Each week, I’m going to talk to guests who are experts at creating startups inside large corporations.

Sean Ammirati: 00:29 I believe fundamentally a startup within a company is the same as one inside the proverbial garage: a group of entrepreneurs trying to make the world a better place using new ideas and inventions. However, I also believe some of the techniques and processes are just inherently different.

Sean Ammirati: 00:45 This podcast is going to explore those similarities and differences.

Sean Ammirati: 00:56 On this week’s episode of Agile Giants I have Dennis Boecker. In some ways this is really a continuation of last week’s conversation with Terry Lonier. Dennis built one of the innovation labs that she talked a little bit about, the Chicago Connectory. It’s a fascinating coworking space and innovation center that I would encourage you to check out if you’re in the Chicago area. If you can’t be there in person at least check out their website. I’ll include a link in the show notes.

Sean Ammirati: 01:20 I first met Dennis as part of an executive education program that I still run to this day. I’ll include a link to the program in the show notes. It’s called Leading Innovation and is a three-day program that’s really helpful for executives looking to pivot their career into doing more innovation work or just reinforce some of the things they’re working on.

Sean Ammirati: 01:38 And what was an amazing cohort, Dennis really stood out. He was incredible and it’s been great to watch him pivot his career from leading IT to leading innovation.

Sean Ammirati: 01:49 I think this is actually a career path a lot of chief information officers should consider, becoming a chief innovation officer.

Sean Ammirati: 01:57 I hope you enjoy this week’s episode with Dennis as much as I enjoyed recording it.

Sean Ammirati: 02:11 Alright. Welcome to another episode of Agile Giants. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing a guy that I’ve known for a number of years and actually was really instrumental in me starting to think about a lot of the issues around the corporate startup lab, Dennis Boecker.

Sean Ammirati: 02:24 Dennis is the founder of the Chicago Connectory. We’ll maybe start there, Dennis. Could you tell people who may not be familiar with it what the Chicago Connectory is?

Dennis Boecker: 02:33 Yeah, for sure.

Dennis Boecker: 02:34 Thanks, Sean, for inviting me to this podcast. I’m really happy to be part of it and it’s a great continuation of our joint story over the last few years. So thanks for having me and coming to the Connectory.

Dennis Boecker: 02:45 The Connectory is a physical co creation innovation space. And it’s focused on IOT collaboration as we see that as the main area where we wanted to apply and try new things of working with our external partners.

Dennis Boecker: 03:02 And as such, the Connectory serves as an anchor for the innovation inside out/outside in approach. This is our overarching innovation approach that we have developed. And the Connectory is one part of it.

Dennis Boecker: 03:17 The vision is to develop a global innovation network which connects both internally across all our domains and regions and as well externally with all the relevant ecosystems to enable Bosch IOT business.

Sean Ammirati: 03:32 So when you say “we,” we is Bosch, for that answer right up till the end. You were talking about “we.” That would be Bosch in this case? Right?

Dennis Boecker: 03:39 We is Bosch in that case. Yeah.

Sean Ammirati: 03:41 Yeah. Yeah.

Sean Ammirati: 03:42 So Bosch has this inside out/outside in innovation philosophy.

Dennis Boecker: 03:48 Yeah.

Sean Ammirati: 03:50 And obviously IOT’s certainly a mega trend that’s important for a company like Bosch. How do those sort of things converge to actually make you want to create this co creation space with 1871 in Chicago?

Dennis Boecker: 04:04 So what we figured, especially for IOT and if you combine the inside out and the outside in approach was we saw kind of a disconnect between what are we doing internally for our innovation activities and what is actually happening outside and how can we bring that together and we all know that the pace of startups, for instance, is completely different than from corporates. On the other side we are as well talking sometimes slightly different languages.

Dennis Boecker: 04:34 And although we are very good in doing everything virtual and digital right now, it feels like especially in areas where we want to develop new business models where we need to approach really new fields, that this face-to-face, sitting close to each other is an element that is very important to us. And this is where the Connectory comes in.

Dennis Boecker: 04:57 We put it in our concept kind of right in the middle between the inside out, so everything that we do internally in Bosch is different groups in Bosch, and then the outside in kind of what are the different things that we view in the collaboration outside, may it be an accelerator program or a collaboration incubator, or, or, or. Yeah?

Dennis Boecker: 05:18 And we put the Connectory right in the middle to it and set some of our innovation ideas that we develop in the inside probably need to explore more on that physical base as well the external market. Probably need to work in that external environment so they can work out of a Connectory. At the same point in time, if there’s a startup that we want to work together and we potentially have work with them in an accelerator in the accelerator program is over, but we are not as far as we need to be to really have this partnership really developed, the Connectory again can be the place where things actually go on in a kind of neutral environment, in a nurturing environment where we have all the environment set up that those kind of relationships can flourish.

Sean Ammirati: 06:08 And I think that was really helpful for people who may not know exactly what you meant New York “inside out/outside in.” So that I think hopefully adds a little bit of context there.

Sean Ammirati: 06:18 So you have this philosophy. You’ve got these internal things you’re doing. Inside out. You’ve got these partnerships with accelerators, startups, et cetera, that are kind of outside in. And you decide that you need to have this physical connecting point between those two philosophies.

Sean Ammirati: 06:33 And then I guess once you have that realization, can you talk a little bit about how the Chicago Connectory got started? Did you approach 1871? Did they approach you? How did that all come to be?

Dennis Boecker: 06:46 So the baseline was our concept for innovation, inside out/outside in, as I said. So we saw that Bosch already has done some outside in activities, but we here in the Chicagoland area said, “Hey, we as well want to explore opportunities.” So we reached out to the market and said, “Okay, what are actually things that we can do,” and as one of the opportunities we had an associate that had a connection to 1871, and we then explored a little bit more about what 1871 is. And we started with cohorts of associates that we sent to 1871 to work out of 1871 and work on their ideas on their small projects and try to work like a startup. We mentored them in this process together with 1871 to specially change the mindset, develop a little bit more of that entrepreneurial culture.

Dennis Boecker: 07:50 And while we were doing that, we got more and more in contact with the former CEO of 1871, Howard Truman. And he and I then started to discuss and said, hey, he wants to do something more specific to IOT. We thought we should do more than just having cohorts working out of 1871 because we felt this is not targeted enough for us. And then this idea of developing an IOT co creation, company innovation space we developed.

Dennis Boecker: 08:19 Then, you know, being at Bosch we needed to circulate that in the organization for awhile.

Dennis Boecker: 08:24 So the idea came about, I would say, in the first quarter 2016, and we circulated the idea within the Bosch organization the second quarter of ’16. And then end of June ’16 we made the decision and said, “Okay, we developed that concept of the Chicago Connectory jointly together with 1871.” We had some more partners already coming onboard right away in the beginning. And then it took us eight months to build out the space and the mat and then we had the soft launch somewhere around March ’17 and the official start of the Connectory’s activities then in May ’17. And since then we are open and on a continuous learning and exploring journey with what we want to achieve as a Connectory.

Sean Ammirati: 09:13 That’s awesome.

Sean Ammirati: 09:14 And just for people who may not be familiar with Bosch lingo. “Associate” inside Bosch really means employee at most other companies. Just.

Dennis Boecker: 09:21 Yeah. Yeah.

Sean Ammirati: 09:23 I’ve spent enough time with Bosch to translate that in my head, but some people might have thought you meant business partners. But these are Bosch employees who knew and then you start working with them.

Sean Ammirati: 09:32 So that’s an awesome iterative approach to starting with the cohorts and then building out this whole program. Exactly what you’d expect any lean start methodology application to creating something.

Sean Ammirati: 09:44 But I think even stepping back a little bit, can you talk a little bit about the path you took within Bosch to ultimately get to this role of leading the Chicago Connectory and founding it?

Dennis Boecker: 09:54 Yeah, for sure.

Dennis Boecker: 09:55 So I came over to the US after several engagements within the Bosch organization in Germany for around 10 years. I came over to Chicago in 2011. And at that point in time as the regional CIO for the Americas region, so for North and Latin America.

Dennis Boecker: 10:14 And the first few years were really focused on the CIO role and stabilizing and improving the IT operations in close collaboration with our global counterparts, especially in Germany. So as you know, we are a very vertical driven organization, and that is as well true for the IT organization, which is serving all the business units of Bosch as an IT service provider. And as we moved in 2011 to our new Chicago suburb environment a lot of the work that I had to do was establishing the new leadership team, establishing the new employee or associate team. And so that was the first few years of my engagement here.

Dennis Boecker: 11:00 And then as we are so vertical organized, we said we need to have a regional identity. And as part of that regional identity we developed several strategic elements that we want to further develop. And we said, hey, US actually we are very good in being innovative, so why should that not be something that we make as one of our core pillars of our regional strategy.

Dennis Boecker: 11:27 So we started to investigate then what I already out there, both internally in Bosch. So we partnered very strongly with our Bosch North America organization in terms of our internal innovation activities, our innovation challenges, sharing programs. But as well then we started as I mentioned to look outside at 1871, at [inaudible 00:11:51] accelerator programs and, and, and.

Dennis Boecker: 11:53 And so we developed that concept as kind of an additional strategic element of the regional CIO role, if you will.

Dennis Boecker: 12:02 So that was as well meant to be that the CIO or the IT organization of Bosch is getting a different role or wants to get a different role within the Bosch organization as for being more than an IT service provider but as well the enabler for the digital business.

Sean Ammirati: 12:20 Yeah.

Dennis Boecker: 12:21 So we developed this concept further and meanwhile we had a restructuring project in the Bosch organization, and as of that I am not focusing completely on the innovation topic because I’ve got broader and broader and it was just not to combine anymore with the regional CIO role.

Dennis Boecker: 12:42 So I left the regional CIO role somehow behind, although we are strongly collaborating because a lot of what we are doing has to do with IT for sure still, but I’m not focusing completely on that innovation role and not only on the regional perspective anymore but really on a global perspective.

Sean Ammirati: 13:00 Yeah. That’s awesome.

Sean Ammirati: 13:01 And I think it’s shift … You, to me, are such a great example of the shift. I’ve talked to lots of IT leaders. You need to be more than just doing IT. You need to be a partner thinking about how information can transform companies and ultimately how that wraps into their overall innovation initiatives. I think there’s a lot of other CIOs who could learn a lot from that path.

Sean Ammirati: 13:27 I know Terry, you’ve worked with, she was on the episode right before you here. So you certainly partnered with folks like here, which I think is interesting. Are there other tips you might give IT executives about this that might be trying to make a similar shift in their career?

Dennis Boecker: 13:43 You know, for me it is … I was thinking quite a bit over the last few years about where I’m now and where I started and that I had several interesting and sometimes massive changes in terms of the focus of my career. And to be honest in the beginning I was not even aware that I will end up somewhere in IT. That was a surprise to me. And then because with my studies of [inaudible 00:14:11] it was just not clear that I will end up in IT at a certain point in time. And now I am in innovation.

Dennis Boecker: 14:17 And what I can say about the changes that I did and to have an impact in that as well, that I think the most important piece is really that you have fun and you are passionate about what you are doing and then you’re able to create an impact. And this is as well the advice that I give to all my associates. I always say if you don’t have at least 50% plus fun with the job that you have, over longer period you better change something.

Dennis Boecker: 14:45 For me, innovation was a complete new topic. And in the beginning I was not aware of this is something I will engage with or not. But immediately more or less after a few engagements with some of the external partners I saw, hey, this is something that is so interesting to me. I definitely want to learn more. I definitely want to be more engaged in that. And I felt the passion that I have about it.

Dennis Boecker: 15:11 And with the passion I was really willing and able to learn as well because if you’re coming new to this topic there’s tons of things that you need to learn: how to engage with startups, lean startups, business model canvas, how to pitch. All kinds of things that, yes, I heard of them, we knew about that, but really using it and taking it into your daily life was something that was new. Talking to all these people. Learning more or less out of every discussion. So for instance with Howard Truman or as well with Terry Lonier, learned a lot about all the different aspects of it, and I think that’s only possible if you’re really passionate about a topic. And as soon as you have that passion you will automatically engage more and more, and then you will be able to influence the environment around you. And it can be a bigger organization or something else, but as soon as you start to influence your organization around you and you can show that you are having an impact there, then you can change as well the environment.

Dennis Boecker: 16:17 And that’s what I see for me.

Dennis Boecker: 16:18 We have created this job position. It was not there two years ago or three years ago we were not even thinking that we need something like this. And with the overall changes that we are doing within Bosch organization it was just a good fit in this role into the mix of the new setup.

Dennis Boecker: 16:39 And I think this is what I would give as an advice to someone and say you need to be passionate about it. You need to constantly learn in that field to engage with the environment around you and then you can have an impact.

Sean Ammirati: 16:56 I met you pretty early in that process through an executive education program that we were leading at Carnegie Mellon. And I can definitely underwrite the passion and interest. Out of all the first cohort of students, you were clearly one of the most interested and passionate about it, which it’s been great to watch you put that to work.

Sean Ammirati: 17:14 One last question on this and then I want to shift to the Chicago Connectory. So I think that was great in terms of what got you excited and stuff. You also said, though, that over the last two years it became obvious to Bosch that they needed a role like this. Without going into any details that might be too confidential, can you just talk a little bit about how the rest of the organization came to the same conclusion of the need for this innovation role?

Dennis Boecker: 17:39 Yeah.

Dennis Boecker: 17:39 So as I mentioned, we had a big IT reorganization project. And as part of that we defined the new role, which is our group chief digital officer role. And as we were designing that new IT organization that should focus more on the enabling aspects besides the purse service delivery prospects, we developed that element and the group CDO has now some very relevant strategic elements and his responsibility besides the IT delivery organization. And one of them is now that driving innovation topic as one role that went into that organization.

Dennis Boecker: 18:23 And it was the good thing that we started this overarching big project for the Bosch organization in parallel as we had explored already all this elements within the organization here. And that helped us to find the synergies. We had already the approaches somehow defined and we could then transition that into that reorganization project.

Sean Ammirati: 18:51 Yeah. That’s really good. You already had some wins to help the company. That’s awesome.

Sean Ammirati: 18:56 Let’s shift to the Chicago Connectory because I think a lot of people may not be aware of it that should be.

Sean Ammirati: 19:01 So one of your missions is to educate just in general about the internet of things. And I guess given that role and that purview, I was curious, two questions that I think weave together a little bit, what do you think is the most misunderstood thing about the internet of things, and then related maybe what makes you most excited about IOT’s ability to transform industries?

Dennis Boecker: 19:24 So the most misunderstood thing that I see currently is really the cultural definitely of bigger corporates because the approach into new ecosystems and partnering with other groups and having this mindset as the changes are getting faster and faster is crucial from my point of view. And looking at it, I’m always saying you have this, if you have to decide between the IP that you have and the [inaudible 00:19:57] market on the other side, I would say that it is moving faster and faster into that [inaudible 00:20:02] market and [inaudible 00:20:03] market has a lot to do with developing that mindset that you need to partner with other groups, that you need to develop solutions together.

Dennis Boecker: 20:11 And the technology behind that is in most of the cases then something that you need to grab and combine in the right way and with that you build then the solutions.

Dennis Boecker: 20:23 But for instance if you’re looking at new business models, all of a sudden you need completely new partners that are unable to work together now that probably in the past would never work together in that environment.

Dennis Boecker: 20:35 And one technology piece that I see is really critical is for instance the security piece. And I think this is one element if you’re looking at technology. As everything is getting connected the concerns about that is definitely one technology topic that will be a continuous effort to keep up with what we are doing there from a business perspective.

Sean Ammirati: 21:01 That’s awesome.

Sean Ammirati: 21:02 And actually I think that ties into another element of your mission, which is to connect corporate partners, not just Bosch, I think, but lost of corporate partners, with this greater network of IOT innovators.

Sean Ammirati: 21:13 Can you talk about how the Connectory does that?

Dennis Boecker: 21:16 Yeah. For sure.

Dennis Boecker: 21:17 So there’s different levels that I see, and some of them are easy and small and some of them are a little bit more complex.

Dennis Boecker: 21:26 So start with some of the easy ones. I think first off you need to, and that’s what we try to do in the Connectory is you need to build communities. Communities around certain topics or certain domains.

Dennis Boecker: 21:39 So for instance we in Chicago have one of our domains that we are focusing on is connected industry. So we try to bring together now the different people from different groups that work around that element. That can be startups, that can be corporates like Bosch, that can be certain civic organizations, and that can as well be universities. And we try to bring all these people together in meetups where we discuss certain aspects of that domain. And then start to figure out what are the problems that we are hearing again and again.

Dennis Boecker: 22:15 And with learning about the problems you can then start to think about potential solutions or opportunities that this will have.

Dennis Boecker: 22:23 So this is the first step to engage beyond the normal customer-vendor relationship that we had in the past.

Dennis Boecker: 22:31 A second piece is then, if you will, so building on that, that we say we have then topic-specific workshops for those different target groups in the Connectory that go a little bit more in depth. So if a meetup is broad and high level and generic, those workshops will go more in detail and will focus more on specific problems that you probably have learned about already in those meetups.

Dennis Boecker: 23:02 And then the next step is that we go really into co creation projects. So as soon as we have identified a problem, we have done the problem framing properly, the next step would really be to go engage with the right partners that can help to solve this problem and build in a co creation aspect that solution. And the Connectory is then providing, if you will, the methods and the tools, so we could probably do a hackathon or a design sprint or any other method that fits it and we would be the ones that could facilitate that.

Dennis Boecker: 23:38 We as well have a prototyping lab. So if you need to build something, we can facilitate that building process of a device. As well as if you need a startup, for instance, and there’s none that you just know about, you can do the startup scouting as well from a Connectory perspective.

Dennis Boecker: 23:56 So we bring those kind of services as an enabling to those co creation projects so that they can move faster.

Sean Ammirati: 24:04 That’s awesome.

Sean Ammirati: 24:05 You also have a bunch of startups working out of the Connectory, right?

Dennis Boecker: 24:08 Yes.

Sean Ammirati: 24:09 Maybe highlight a couple of your favorite startups in the Connectory? And we can include links to these in the show notes as well.

Dennis Boecker: 24:17 Let me say we have three externals that I would like to say and then we have on internal startup that puts the link again back to what I said earlier that we have ideas that we develop on our inside and we want to give them this as well as a stage to explore their opportunities in the external market.

Dennis Boecker: 24:41 So the first one I want to highlight is Catalytic. And I want to highlight Catalytic because they are going the journey with us more or less for the whole time. So at the very beginning of our process with the Connectory the process was Catalytic started in the startup matching process that we did together with 1871 that was end of 2016. And we were looking, our purchasing department was looking for a process automation opportunity. And they said we could potentially do it ourselves but we need a partner because you want to be faster and quicker with the approach. And then around that timeframe several companies pitched to us. Catalytic was the one that finally matched the best. And in the very early stages of the Connectory we built then the first prototype together with Catalytic and our purchasing organization in the Connectory. And since then Catalytic has been a very valuable partner. And just won Bosch North American purchasing innovation award a few months back.

Dennis Boecker: 25:51 And they are meanwhile providing a solution in the Bosch environment. So therefore, I would say this is an example of how this whole journey could look like with a startup. And they are a member of the Connectory.

Dennis Boecker: 26:03 Then two more that are going a little bit in a different domain. Both more into our mobility domain that we are establishing in the Connectory. One is Split, a startup that coordinates corporate commute to and back from work, especially in those locations where commute times or commute distances are long and it makes a lot of sense to bring people together from one company because you probably come from the same area, then you drive together but you probably don’t know that another one is as well driving the same route.

Dennis Boecker: 26:40 So this platform is actually helping with that.

Dennis Boecker: 26:44 And so we are engaged as Bosch very strongly with Split but as well Split is using the Connectory as one of there spots to work out.

Dennis Boecker: 26:56 And the second one in this direction as well is DemandTrans. It’s as well playing in that mobility area and as their vision is creating products that enhance the mobility experience from beginning to end.

Dennis Boecker: 27:11 So really trying to evolve that ecosystem together with our corporate projects that we have in the Connectory.

Dennis Boecker: 27:20 So there you see already a little bit of the domain focus that we have with the mobility. And mobility then directly plays as well into cities.

Dennis Boecker: 27:31 And there just the one internal that I would like to mention is mLab. And mLAB is a Bosch internal startup, if you will. It’s a group that works out of the Connectory and is driving [inaudible 00:27:44] engagement with the community based approach and exploring opportunities together with us and other partners within the Bosch organization and with the external ecosystem to drive that approach.

Sean Ammirati: 27:56 How did mLab get started? This probably could become a whole nother episode here, but can you give the quick mLab origin story?

Dennis Boecker: 28:04 So that was an idea from one of our associates, and I don’t even know exactly when that started, but they went and through our innovation challenge programs, through our internal innovation program and then established a broader idea about a sense of what they want to achieve. And then as we opened the Connectory we then agreed that it would be a great idea to position them in the Connectory as one of our first members, so to say, and let them explore the opportunities out of the Connectory environment and not out of the corporate environment.

Sean Ammirati: 28:39 That’s awesome.

Sean Ammirati: 28:41 This has been great.

Sean Ammirati: 28:42 I like to end every interview the same way. And you already touched on some of the advice you give to your associates, but I’m just curious. If you go back to when you were a recent economics graduate and someone maybe at that point in their career now, they’re just finishing up their university program and now they’re stepping out into their career, say they want to have the impact that you’ve had in your career, any advice behind the have fun advice that you might give a recent graduate?

Dennis Boecker: 29:11 I would say besides the fun piece that comes automatically along with it is really find the area where you’re passionate about and be open to learn and be open to change perspectives all the time and engage with everyone that is around you there and try to learn as mush as possible.

Dennis Boecker: 29:34 I think every interaction that you have is a learning opportunity and that’s how I live my life to really see every discussion that I have, even if it’s not driving the immediate business, normally every interaction that I have is a learning opportunity for me and I try to live it this way. And I think this is something that I would give, especially young people, to say go in this direction.

Sean Ammirati: 29:58 And again, I can really underwrite that. I remember when you went through the Carnegie Bosch Institute, executive education program, and watching you continue to apply this. You’ve been a lifelong learner and that is certainly a great element of the overall success you’ve had beyond your intellect and focusing on the right problems.

Sean Ammirati: 30:18 Dennis, I really want to thank you for jumping on and doing this with me today. We’ll make sure to include links to those start ups that you mentioned as well as links to the Connectory overall in the show notes. And thanks again.

Dennis Boecker: 30:30 Thank you, Sean, for having me. It was a pleasure to have this discussion with you.

Sean Ammirati: 30:41 I hope you enjoyed with episode of Agile Giants. If so, consider sharing it with a friend. And if you think it’s worth five stars, which I hope you do, please go to iTunes and rate it so that others can find this content as well.

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