Navigating the Uncharted: Innovation in the MEP World

As 2023 draws into a close, I thought I would reflect back on our innovation journey starting back in 2020.

This wild journey began with a simple introduction to key players in the innovation game—Jesse Devitte and Allen Praeger of Borealis (now Building Ventures), Rob Otani of Thornton Tomasetti, Tim Gaylord of DPR and KP Reddy at Shadow Ventures. We were hooked right from the start because for us it wasn’t just about investing; we wanted to be part of this innovation ecosystem and help disrupt our industry from within. Little did I know that our venture into uncharted territories could redefine how MEP firms approached innovation.

We decided early on that we weren’t just going to make investments with funds and companies, but that we were going to establish a world-class research and development arm within our firm.

With more enthusiasm than a kid in a candy store, we dove into research. No other MEP firm to our knowledge had attempted something like this. We studied the StageGate, HP Funnel, TT’s core studio, DPR innovation program, Disney’s Imagineering, and many more. Searching through the internet I found two key items: a linked post by Brett Young of M2x.ai, and a video by Leo Chan of Chick–fil-A — both on their innovation process. Brett was onboarded as our innovations consultant and helped steer us on our journey. And Chick-fil-A really left a lasting impression. A decentralized approach with local innovation coaches really stood out as a great fit for us. So we borrowed bits and pieces from each process, creating a tailored innovation strategy that suited our needs.

Enter our corporate ideation program— SYSDev, a four-step process that was the culmination of a team of 35 staff members engaging in workshops, learning, and researching how to revolutionize our company. Inspired by Chick-fil-A’s decentralized approach, we carved our unique path. SYSDev became the engine of our innovation.

We studied the blockers to innovation at our firm. In consulting engineering companies, if you present a problem or a solution, you are often “voluntold” to develop that idea or solve the problem. Basically, if you came up with a great idea, you just bought yourself more work. To get rid of that blocker, we took a page from Disney’s playbook: We separated the dreamers from the critics, essentially delinking the person who came up with the idea from the person who would execute it, thus spurring more innovation.

Teaching our Innovation coaches, going to a plethora of external events, and performing internal roadshows became our arsenal. The goal? To foster an innovative culture where ideas thrive and skeptics are turned into believers.

While navigating this innovation odyssey, we partnered with Enviro Power and HVAC Manufacturers Inc., and ventured into seed-stage investing on our own, a rarity in the MEP realm. Our team members were thrilled to have a part in guiding a real company from an idea to a commercialized product.

We are hoping our overall approach will redefine innovation in the MEP world. Stay tuned for updates on Syska Vision, Procore Puller and other exciting products we are developing. I suggest that you make a New Year’s resolution to support innovation in your own companies. 2024 just might be the year we usher in a new era of innovation in not only MEP, but also in the wider building industry.

Written By Robert Ioanna