I’ve had the opportunity and honor to participate in several ribbon-cutting, groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies over the course of my career. Each is special in its own way and has left me with a memory I carry with me today. Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Sixers Innovation Lab Crafted by Kimball is definitively one of the more memorable and meaningful ones.
For Seth Berger, the Sixers Innovation Lab Managing Director, innovation flows through his veins and his mind is never far from the young entrepreneurs he mentors, “You’re why I want to wake up at two o’clock in the morning and I’m thinking about business. I’m excited about your businesses and I’m excited about you. When I get in the car at eight in the morning your passion for your businesses is why I get on my phone right away. I’m incredibly excited to be in businesses with you.”
For Mike Wagner, President of Kimball Office, without whose forward-thinking approach to the workplace environment there would be no Innovation Lab, the focus was on creating a work environment that matched the entrepreneurs’ need for hyper-efficiency. Wagner called the Innovation Lab a “perfect example of American ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit…this is an organization that looks to maximize value in everybody. This is a place where they breed champions. As usual, the Sixers leadership is breaking the mold, and changing the dynamics of how you extract value from a partnership opportunity.” He and ended his speech with a favorite quote: “The key to survival is that ‘we must design our future, before others determine our fate.’ That has never been truer than now.”
While the event was attended by over 100 business and civic leaders, strategic partners, media, and co-workers; for my part, I found myself solely focused on the five bright-eyed CEOS in residence at the Lab.
We say that innovation is in our blood, it’s in our DNA. It’s woven into the very fabric of our organization. It’s in the shards of glass scattered on the hardwood after Dawkin’s broke the first backboard. It’s in the spirit of the young executive asking, “But what if we tried….” It’s being the first professional sports team out of the gate to acquire an esports franchise or sign a jersey patch partnership. It’s in an occasional misstep, mishap, mistake or fall. We think of innovation as the very foundation of our organization. It is only meaningful, then, that our Sixers Innovation Lab was built on the ground floor at the base of our office in the Philadelphia 76ers Training Complex. Innovation is our foundation. It’s our anchor.
I want the freshly minted Sixers sales associates, wearing their first new suit, on their first day, to pass the Innovation Lab doors on their way to their desks. I want our most senior executives, with decades of experience in the NBA and professional sports, to occasionally eat lunch in the Innovation Lab cafeteria. I want potential partners waiting in our executive lobby to peak through the frosted Innovation Lab doors, and feel the energy and action. I want our Innovation Lab to serve as a constant, present, living and breathing reminder that if we aren’t moving forward, we are moving backwards.
Below is what I said at the Sixers Innovation Lab Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony yesterday.
Transcription: Scott O’Neil, Sixers Innovation Lab Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony
I go through life convinced that there isn’t much I really know. Those of you that know me well, would definitely agree with that. I wake up early in the morning with the aim and desire to learn something new. There are lessons all around us if we are open to listening and learning.
One thing that I learned from Seth Berger, our Managing Director of the Innovation Lab; and there are several lessons that I’ve learned from him – from life to parenting to marriage to business – the one thing that stuck with me on the business front is that in our own lives, and in our own business lives, we have to figure out what those three things are that really matter. And you have to spend all your time focusing on those three things. Every minute of time you spend outside of those core, critical pieces is noise and waste of time. Since I have had the chance to work with Seth once, and now twice, it is something that I hold near and dear to my heart.
I can tell you the way we look at the world at the Sixers. We look at the world very differently. Whether it’s building our basketball team or building our business or creating an Innovation Lab. We walk through life looking at the world in a unique way. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, though. That is a risk. That is always the risk. But, nothing great has ever been discovered or delivered by staying on the safe and staid path. Our growth mindset has has us “Palms Up” as we say: open to learn, and listen, and try. For us, we know the risk of failure is always higher when you try something new, and we’re willing to take a first step, and then another, and still another one. When we fall down, we pop back up, look around, assess what we learned, and hop right back on the horse and keep going. I think what we are creating here, in this Innovation Lab, will become a great living and breathing example of that.
So, to our Innovation Lab’s CEOs; to entrepreneurs throughout the industry; to University of Pennsylvania graduates printing tee-shirts out of their basements; to the dreamers punching the clock from 9-to-5 and burning the midnight oil on their passion projects; to you I say, keep grinding, pushing, experimenting, tweaking, strategizing, asking questions and learning. Keep your “Palms Up.” Be voracious for both praise and criticism. Be as obsessed with your customer as Jeff Bezos. Keep your standards high but your heart humble. Be a student of your industry. Be a gym rat at your trade. I have said before that to truly innovate is to understand and accept risk and forge ahead intrepidly; that the thirst to innovate must be stronger than, and undeterred by, the possibility of failure. I can, and will, encourage you to try to fly. I can, and will, warn you that you may fall. I could tell you that we will be here to catch you, but I won’t. Because we won’t be waiting for you at the bottom with a pair of binoculars and a safety net. We won’t be peering, watching and pointing from the sidelines. We will be standing alongside you when you take that leap. And we will make it with you. We will never let you fly alone.
Companies seeking to help e-gamers, fantasy sport players and felines – yes, cats! – are among the first participants in the Innovation Lab created by the Philadelphia 76ers.
The basketball team unveiled its 8,000-square-foot facility for the first time Tuesday afternoon.
The basketball team unveiled its 8,000-square-foot facility for the first time Tuesday afternoon.
The Innovation Lab, sponsored by Sixers’ corporate partner Kimball Office, is housed within the team’s 125,000-square-foot training complex and headquarters in Camden. The Sixers created the lab to support entrepreneurs and early-stage companies with ideas for consumer and sports-related products and technologies.
“These entrepreneurs, they are different,” said Scott O’Neil, CEO of the Sixers. “Sports teams could use a dose of what they have. They have courage, strength and conviction. They are okay with falling, and they get right back up.”
Before the space was completed, Monster Roster founder and CEO Dylan Elder, whose company helps fantasy sports players pick their lineups, was announced as the first entrepreneur selected for the lab. Monster Roster’s patent-pending algorithm provides optimum recommendations for lineups in baseball, football and basketball fantasy games conducted by DraftKings and FanDuel.
Elder dropped out of Georgetown University and relocated from San Francisco to be part of the Innovation Lab.
Joining Elder and Monster Roster in the lab are:
U GIT GUD: the developer of an online, hyper-improvement training platform created to provide professional, amateur and beginner e-sports players with analytics, analysis and personalized recommendations from some of the top e-sports players in the world. The company was founded in 2017 by Cornell Alumni Shinggo Lu, 26, of Iowa City, and Alan Liang, 26, of Chicago. U Git Gud will later this week debut a beta platform that offers support to players of League of Legends. The company’s name refers to an intentional misspelling of the phrase “get good,” an expression used to heckle inexperienced players in online video games.
Doc & Phoebe’s Cat Co: the developer of an indoor hunting feeder system designed to maximize cats’ natural instincts to hunt and play, while combating the top causes of cat physical and mental illness and death. The no-bowl feeding system features five mice-shaped feeders that mimic the size, shape and tactile disposition of prey. The patented feeder — used, according to the company, by 13,000 cats around the world — “returns cats feeding to a natural process and alleviates the ‘scarf and barf’ phenomenon, returns cats to a healthy weight, and prevents bad behavior caused by restlessness and anxiety.” The company was founded in 2014 by Dr.Elizabeth Bales, a graduate of University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, who developed the product as a solution to cat behavior problems she observed during her 17 years as a practicing veterinarian.
Live Life Nice: a cause-driven digital media company that plans to provide “original, moving content,” on social media to introduce and share stories meant to empower and motivate viewers by inspiring social sharing and a social movement that supports that company’s “Do Nice” mission. The video content will be designed to provide opportunities for cause-minded brands to integrate directly into “captivating, poignant and accessible stories, creating a portal to compassionate, engaged consumers and their social networks.” The company was founded in 2014 by Christian Crosby of Brooklawn, N.J. Crosby was the Sixers’ in-arena game day host from 2014 and 2017. Prior to that, starting when was 18, he was a trampoline dunker and in-game performer for the team.
Rhyan Truett, manager of operations for the Innovation Lab said the team received about 250 applications from companies seeking to be part of the lab.
The perks of being part of the lab include: office space furnished by Kimball; access to industry experts, executives and financiers; third-party branding opportunities, marketing and legal services; free meals and housing in the Philadelphia-area; and the opportunity to pitch industry-leading investors and venture capital firms.
The Sixers’ partners in the project, in addition to Kimball, include Maven Creative, which will provide lab companies with web site, graphic design and branding services; Pepper Hamilton, which will provide legal consulting; and Morgan Properties. Advisors include The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, StubHub, DraftKings, Rothman Institute, First Round Capital and NovaCare.
Sixers officials declined to disclose the amount of the investment the team is making to create and operate the lab.
The innovation lab is led by Seth Berger, who was named its managing director last year. Berger was the co-founder and former CEO of Paoli-based basketball apparel company, AND 1. Following the sale of AND1 to American Sporting Goods in 2005, Berger spent the next 10 years in semi-retirement, coaching the boys’ basketball team at Westtown School, a Quaker private school in West Chester.
Berger said Camden Mayor Dana Redd has done an “absolutely amazing” job of attracting companies to the city.
“If we can contribute a small part to that effort, I’ll be proud,” he said.
Berger said the four companies that were selected are led by entrepreneurs “Who have demonstrated the most innovative thinking, strategic planning, vision, and most importantly heart. Our goal is to remove the ‘noise’ that drown so many startups, and give them the resources to focus on what they do best — innovating and thinking consumer-first.”
Redd offered a big smile when looking around the open floor design of the lab space before the opening ceremony began.
“I love the idea of an innovation lab, and attracting and supporting up and coming entrepreneurs,” Redd said. She added she is hopeful the companies will want to stay in Camden as they grow.
Berger, addressing the 100-plus people who attending the grand opening event, told the story of first meeting O’Neil in the 1990s. At the time, O’Neil was selling sponsorship for the Nets and Berger was selling AND1 T-shirts. They later worked together in a basketball website venture called HoopsTV.com. He said he jumped at the chance to reunite with O’Neil at the Innovation Lab.
Elder, Monster Roster’s CEO, told me earlier this year that being part of the Sixers Innovation Lab has helped open doors he would have otherwise had a tough time getting through. An example involved Sixers corporate marketing partner Draft Kings.
“After I was here three weeks, I flew out to Boston [with a group of Sixers officials] to meet with the CEO of Draft Kings [Jason Robbins], and I got some advice on the product,” Elder said. “That’s just one example of how they helped me. One of the things I am good at is knowing what I don’t know. Having someone like Seth Berger to lean on and learn from on a day-to-day basis has been great. He has given me advice on things like how to identify customers, to how to market the company.”
Chief Executive Officer, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center