How we set up an innovation lab
"I went on the Market Driving Strategies programme in 2013 with Martin Bennett,
who was taking over as HomeServe’s UK CEO at the time. That week was the
starting point of a journey that has seen us set up an innovation lab and launch a
product in the shape of the LeakBot leak detector, which is now on sale in the UK
and the US. My HomeServe Labs team has won a bunch of awards and I also won
the Insurance Times “Technology Champion of the Year” in 2017.
There were some key questions from Professor Rajesh Chandy on the programme
that really triggered this whole process.
First he asked us why we think companies are innovative. Was it because they
spend loads of money on R&D? Well, he disproved that. And he kept disproving our
ideas. Then he told us it was about future focus: the degree to which an organisation
is focused on the future, right from the very top. Not just in the sense of a five-year
plan, but in really understanding what business you are in and how technology and
other winds of change will change the marketplace and the value you
deliver to your end customer.
Martin and I started out thinking we were in the home insurance business but after
sitting up late after class and scribbling on the back of napkins in our hotel restaurant
we realised we were in the home assistance business. That mindset shift started to
make new things possible.
When we thought about how technology will change home assistance in a few
years, it was obvious that the internet of things will transform how people access our
services. If a boiler is connected to the internet then someone can see the faults on
the system before the homeowner even knows they’ve got a problem, which will
change the way people access a boiler service or a repair.
Then Rajesh asked what percentage of our resources were focused on building that
future business rather than running the day-to-day. And that was a sucker punch.
We knew 100% of our resources were focused on running our day-to-day business;
there wasn’t even one person whose job it was to work on the future business.
I remember that in one of the coffee breaks at London Business School I searched
on my phone and found a German technology company, tado°, that makes smart
thermostats which were just coming in back then, and I showed it to Martin, and we
thought, ‘Let’s do this!’
Within six months we had set up the Lab – although it was initially called The Shed.
It was just a small office on the far side of the car park but we brought in technical
people like hardware engineers and designers and started reviewing ideas.
We knew there was interest in smart thermostats but our core business is plumbing
– we fix hundreds of thousands of leaks – so the obvious question was: will plumbing
get connected too? So we started with an engineering brief: is it possible to clip
something onto a pipe that can detect a leak anywhere on the mains water?
With the help of a serial inventor we cracked it. He built a prototype test kit from a
Raspberry Pi, a SIM Card and some temperature sensors and developed an
algorithm, and LeakBot was born.
For insurers this solves a big problem that’s really worth solving and that makes it
an innovator’s dream. We’ve received massive interest from the industry in LeakBot.
Our team in HomeServe Labs has grown to 50 people and I now report straight to
the group CEO, Richard Harpin. He sees LeakBot as a key pillar of growth for the
whole group over the coming years."