Linda Elkins: Creating and launching an innovation center in Silicon Valley

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Linda Elkins’ career spans 18 years, in which she’s served in multiple roles at W. L. Gore & Associates. In the Sunnyvale, Calif. based Medical Products Division, Linda led new product development teams from ideation to commercial launch; drove technical projects and resourcing for manufacturing and R&D engineering; and owns two patents, including work on endovascular repair of aneurysms approximate to side branch vessels. She made a short career pivot as a professional triathlete, where she competed in Ironman Hawaii multiple times as well as several International World Championship races. Linda earned an M.S. in both Biomedical and Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan, and a B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Notre Dame.

Linda dedicated the past two years to the creation and launch of the Gore Innovation Center in Silicon Valley, where she took it from its original concept to the facility’s execution, completion and launch. Now, she’s working to jointly develop products, technologies and business models where Gore materials can uniquely add value. Linda is focused on developing strategic partnerships with startups, corporations and academia that align or expand Gore’s current focus in the fabrics, medical, industrial and electronics industries.

VINAJ: Introduce yourself briefly and your role at Gore

LINDA: I have been at Gore over 18 years, in commitments from engineering to project management to technical leadership. About 3 years ago I took on the commitment to create the Gore Innovation Center. This involved both creating an 11,000 sq. ft. physical space that was designed to collaborate with our potential external partners in a hands-on environment. In addition, determining how Gore will use the center to increase growth within the company while being a key contributor to the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

VINAJ: Talk a bit about the motivation and rationale for opening an innovation center?

LINDA: Gore has always been known as being an innovative company, however, our innovations efforts have largely been internally focused and driven. As a company we realized that in order to be around another 60 years we also needed to partner externally. When we looked at our long term Enterprise strategy a couple years ago, one of our key initiatives was reinvigorating innovation. This space is one of the ways we are doing that.

VINAJ: Why did Gore pick Silicon Valley?

LINDA: Our Enterprise Leadership Team was involved in the decision to create the Gore Innovation Center. Gore has a facility out here in Silicon Valley so it was an easy decision to create an innovation center in conjunction with that facility as we can leverage some of the same resources and infrastructure. We realized the opportunities for external collaboration in Silicon Valley, plus the need to monitor trends for disruption, the talent pool, and a number of other factors, made it really attractive to add on to our current presence out here in Silicon Valley.

VINAJ: A little perspective on the design of the Gore Innovation Center, intent of the space, collaboration, events, etc.

LINDA: I consider the space as being broken into thirds. The first third is a capabilities area where we talk about Gore’s history and show the breadth of Gore and the multitude of applications where Gore’s materials are used. This is used to educate and inspire visitors about Gore and help them appreciate the number of different ways and areas in which we can add value to partnerships. The middle third is an ideation/co-working space that will take partners a step beyond the Capabilities Center for brainstorming and hands-on interaction. A mix of meeting rooms, casual conversation areas, large whiteboards and work tables will provide an ideal environment for sparking creativity and experimentation. And the back third is a 2500 sq ft prototyping lab where we can prototype with our partners using Gore materials and expertise.

VINAJ: What does Gore hope to see achieved by the innovation center in the coming years?

LINDA: Gore is working to identify and integrate emerging technologies that are complementary to our existing capabilities and forming strategic partnerships around these opportunities. We plan to understand how Gore can play a unique role in different whitespaces, potential disruptions to our current businesses, and by helping internal teams solve challenges that do not make sense to drive with Gore internal resources. The ultimate goal is increasing opportunities and contributing to the growth of Gore.

VINAJ: How will ROI be measured?

LINDA: Our early metrics are volume based and not linked to revenue; e.g. number of partnerships established, number of visitors, and subsequent number of agreements signed. We did this intentionally to allow growth in our early years as we start to work with strategic partners. Over time we will shift our metrics to focus on the contributions the center is making to the broader enterprise, e.g. challenges solved for internal projects that go on to generate revenue or number of possible disruptions shared with business units.

VINAJ: Please share 1 to 3 key lessons learned and/or advice so far about running or setting up an innovation center that would be helpful to fellow corporate innovation groups.

LINDA: Reach out to others. Everyone is so willing to help get you up and running. A lot of companies have gone through this process and there is no need to make the same mistakes. Staff the center with both internal and external hires. It is critical to have someone within the company to bring the culture, expertise, and internal connections. It is also imperative to have someone with an understanding of the Silicon Valley ecosystem who can bring that external perspective.

VINAJ: Gore was a pioneer in its industry, how is Gore leveraging innovation to not only remain relevant but to maintain leadership?

LINDA: By leveraging innovation, Gore is able to meet customer needs by developing new products that stay at the forefront of technology. This maintains our position as a market leader across our three divisions – Fabrics, Medical, and Industrial/Electronics. Our innovation programs foster both internal and external innovation and take the best ideas and drive them forward to new business and product opportunities. Internal innovation is through our 8-week customer discovery process and external innovation is led by our Gore Innovation Center in Silicon Valley.

VINAJ: At Gore, different divisions have an innovation function and your organization is an innovation hub in Silicon Valley. How do you engage and collaborate with these different innovation groups within Gore?

LINDA: The Gore Innovation Center focuses on exploring “whitespace areas”, which we define as areas not within one of our 3 divisions. This is led by our Innovation Center of Expertise, which has representation from the divisions, but is a corporate function. We also focus on helping the three divisions with innovation that aligns with their strategies. Targeted industry events, roundtables, pitch events and thought leadership efforts allow us to drive "whitespace areas" as well as better support our divisions.

VINAJ: What is the number one takeaway that you have learned from working with/networking with other innovation professionals?

LINDA: Clearly establishing and communicating KPIs is critical. The KPIs should be in direct alignment with your leadership and broader enterprise goals. This allows all parties to innovate in a way that supports both businesses and fully realizes the potential of partnerships.