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What is the Filene Incubator? (And What is Innovation, Really?)

I recently returned from what I am calling “The Great Minnesota Road Trip.”  We packed the kids in the car and spent seven days putting on tons of miles and intent on seeing the craziest things Minnesota has to offer. 

Did you know that Bena, MN is home to the world's largest Muskie Drive Inn restaurant that was featured in the opening credits of the Chevy Chase’s movie Vacation? It’s true, here’s the proof:

There are 13 places in the world to see Paul Bunyan. Including a handful in Minnesota, like my hometown in Brainerd. But Akely, MN claims to be the birthplace of the larger than life lumberjack. In addition, their Paul Bunyan is the tallest in the world. If he were standing up…

Another AMAZING place we visited was Angle Inlet, MN. It is the most northern place in the lower 48.  It has a population of 60 people and to get there you have to drive through Canada. Really! The border crossing includes a wooden hut with a direct line to either the U.S. or Canada. You simply press the flag of the country you are entering and speak with Border Control over the phone.  

Why am I going on and on about this?  

First, it was a cool vacation and I want to show you my picture, alright. And I'm having a little vacation hangover so just humor me. Truth be told, I do NOT moonlight doing research and development for the Minnesota Department of Tourism. That would be a cool gig though. But I like my current role as Managing Director of Innovation for Filene where we DO do research and development for credit unions. 

When I tell people my title, I often get an intrigued but puzzled look that reads, “Cool…but what exactly does that mean?” Or the “Oh everyone is doing innovation now,” response. Both seem kind of hollow.

So, what is innovation really?

Ask ten people and you will likely get ten different responses. Innovation has become such a commonly used buzzword that the online definition reads, “the action or process of innovating.” Seriously. It's so common that it is its own definition!

I like to say innovation is an idea that solves a problem or challenge for your member or organization.  And we do that at Filene with our Incubator. It’s where we test ideas—rooted in research, based on real consumer need—in the marketplace.

One way we incubate and innovate ideas at Filene is through our renowned i3 – ideas, innovation, implementation – program. Twice a year, credit union executives from the U.S. and Canada gather to present solutions to consumer finance problems. Over the past dozen or so years, hundreds of solutions have been presented. Most of them are incremental solutions to problems their members are facing right in their own back yard.

The most successful concepts from our i3 teams get tested in the real word with partner credit unions. One promising solution that we are currently recruiting testers for is Bank on Family.

'Bank on Family' banks on innovation -- you can bank on that!

Bank on Family solves a reality many of us know: informal lending between family and friends is not only awkward, but repayment rates are very low.

In fact, only 43% of informal loans get paid back in full. This solution formalizes the process with the credit union to increase repayment rates for lenders, build borrowers credit, and create loyal members with healthy financial behaviors.

Are you interested in testing with us?! Complete this form to be considered for the Bank on Family prototype test. 

But wait, there's more!

Another way we incubate concepts is through partnerships. When creating solutions to real problems our member credit unions face, there are three options:

  1. Build it ourselves like Bank on Family
  2. Pay someone to build it (not often feasible as a small nonprofit)
  3. Partner with a start-up or organization that is trying to solve the same thing

We have a fantastic webinar on September 12 that walks through how you can leverage one of our partners and see their platform in action. 

We are constantly learning and innovating ourselves 

I was very fortunate to be able to attend an amazing event this summer hosted by Econic, called the Inside/Outside Innovations Conference.  

This three-day national conference brought high-growth startups and corporate entrepreneurs together to collide and innovate over three days in the Midwest.

What do Fortune 500 companies, investors and nimble start-ups all have in common? Opportunity.

I receive many, many contacts from new start-ups who believe they would be perfect for credit unions. There is incredible opportunity to accelerate the vetting process in-person and to plant seeds for future partnerships.  

Innovation is constantly changing and moving faster, and faster. The opportunity for all of us to learn from one another is critical to Filene's goals and work in our innovation efforts. We practice what we preach and are continually trying to improve and do better for our members.

My entire job, and the job of all of us in the Incubator, is to test, innovate and bring ideas to the marketplace to create real positive impact for credit unions. 

Think of us as your Resaerch and Development department. Way cooler and more meaningful than seeing the world's largest ball of twine made by one man (Darwin, MN). It’s good to be back at work! 

Give me a shout if you ever want to chat about innovation or vacation (especially those involving Paul Bunyan axes and twine)!