IDEO Launches A Start-Up Incubator (But Don’t Call It An Incubator)

For start-ups, the benefit is having IDEO’s design thinking on demand. Applications are due by July 15th.


Apple. Samsung. Procter & Gamble. OXO. Walgreens. Ford. Toyota. 3M. Design firm IDEO has done work for them all in their 21-year history, a go-to service for the richest companies in the world–and their competitors–who are in constant need of fresh ideas.


But now, IDEO has decided to add on something new. Rather than work for just the biggest companies in the world, they’ll be working with some of the smallest. It’s part of their new Start-Up in Residence program, a five-month boot camp for just one lucky start-up team who will work right aside IDEO out of their Chicago office.

“We’re not an incubator. But we believe that design built into an organization will help build the types of companies that will help change the world,” IDEO Partner Iain Roberts tells Co.Design. “My experience in this field is, too often people are interested in raising the capital to grow, rather than building a great product that will build a great audience.”

Participants don’t attend mandatory sessions or have their ideas skewered in front of investors. Instead, they basically become IDEO employees. Whenever IDEO sets up a new client project, they assemble small teams with business, creative and technology perspectives (that can include psychologists, MBAs, and UX designers). These teams are “essentially start-ups,” Roberts explains, who team up to tackle a new problem together. The start-up in residence is the same basic thing, except rather than working for an IDEO client, they’re working for themselves.

The start-up then rubs elbows with IDEO employees all day long–employees who are at their disposal. “It’s very informal,” says Roberts. “Go and tap two designers on the shoulders and say ‘I need two hours of your time to work through this problem.'”

IDEO becomes an on-demand consultant for the start-up, but with a strong mentoring edge. A company that graduates the program will leave with the toolset to tackle problems just like IDEO teams. So far, just one start-up has graduated from the program called Food Genius. It walked into the program as an app that recommended specific new dishes to try on menus rather than merely new restaurants to eat at. But they walked out as a restaurant consumer data company, selling “actionable intelligence on restaurants, their menus, and consumer behavior while dining out.”

“We moved in thinking that we would have IDEO solve problems for us. When we left, we’d been through a crash course in how IDEO thinks about problems, learning the basics of their product development process,” writes Food Genius founder and CEO Justin Massa. “It’s a canned line but works well: they taught us how to fish rather than simply feeding us.”


“We thought about a more structured approach, but what we found was the DNA transfer, the osmosis of ideas is a fundamental value,” Roberts explains. “It’s about giving this team access to how we work, how we research what companies’ needs are, how we prototype solutions and how we learn about the marketplace.”

So what’s in it for IDEO? They take an undetermined minority stake in the companies they mentor. It’s decided on a case-by-case basis, largely by the maturity of the start-up, which gives IDEO the chance to own pieces of their ideology long term that they usually sell in the short term. At the same time, these relationships with start-ups give IDEO’s large clients access to what are hopefully some of the most cutting-edge small businesses in the world, adding that much more value to IDEO’s core services.

If your start-up is interested in applying, the deadline is July 15th. You don’t need to be a Chicago-based company to be considered, but do take a look at the guidelines on this page. They’re interested in topics like big data, education, and health–spaces they’ve marked as ripe for disruption, along with founders who are “coachable, smart and visionary.”

“We’re looking for people who see the world in new ways … for people who are actually passionate about solving a fundamental problem,” says Roberts. “We’re less interested in doing a new version of something that already exists.”

[Image: Ariusz Nawrocki/Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach