Contributed by Leslie Constans, Director of Marketing & Communications at OEN
According to a recent Inc. Magazine article on internal company incubators, more and more businesses are getting into the game of innovating new solutions and companies from within. We’re seeing that right here in Oregon as well with companies like Leatherman Tools, Cambia Health Solutions and most recently, Nike. OEN recently chatted with Anna Martens, Director of Innovation at FreeRangePDX, the incubator launched a little over a year ago by Leatherman Tools, to find out more about this latest entrepreneurial movement and how it works at Leatherman.
It’s probably no surprise that a company that makes things to help prepare people for both the expected and unexpected would set up an innovation shop to fuel new ideas and technologies. What’s maybe more surprising is that FreeRangePDX, which supports Leatherman Tools and its subsidiaries, is tasked with creating anything BUT multi-tools – but always with an eye toward improving lives and being prepared.
According to Martens, who came up with the idea for FreeRangePDX and secured her CEO’s support to launch it, the FreeRangePDX innovation center was established to help the company explore product inventions outside of its core markets but within certain “guardrails” such as:
- Big product category and revenue opportunity
- Aligned with the company’s mission
“The guardrails keep it from being overwhelming,” said Martens, adding that if the ideas don’t fit within the guardrails of the innovation center, they go to the “Rest in Peace area.”
What makes FreeRangePDX perhaps different from other internal company incubators is that it is interested in soliciting product ideas from product innovators from outside of the company, as well as within.
Explains Martens: “There are so many people with ideas that they’ve been tinkering with but don’t know what to do with. Ideally, they come to us with something that aligns with our brand but they don’t know how to make it or market it. We see quite a bit of interest from people who got started on Kickstarter but don’t how to ramp up or get into distribution. We’re like an angel investor in that way but we can also give the inventor experience and a chance to make the product better.”
Located in Southeast Portland’s Water Avenue, FreeRangePDX is made up of Martens, who left her job as director of product at Leatherman Tools to run the innovation center, and three other full-time employees. She also created a three-month rotational position for engineers from Leatherman Tools to experience the innovation center and “breathe fresh air” before returning to their regular jobs.
Martens makes a quarterly presentation to the company’s 600+ employees, inviting them to submit their ideas to FreeRangePDX, and is always on the lookout for ideas from external innovators, too.
“The best ideas are from people solving their own problems,” she said.
If you have a product idea for FreeRangePDX, visit http://freerangepdx.com/ to apply.