Fledgling local organization crusading for innovation

Jerry McColgin saw firsthand the power of innovation during his 15 years at Whirlpool Corp., starting on the factory floor and working up to lead an Evansville-based team of 35 people scattered across 17 countries.

Its mission in the late 1990s was to create a low-capacity, frost-free refrigerator that would be embraced in emerging countries like India, China and Brazil. McColgin recalls visiting families in India, camcorder in hand, to better understand how they live and spend their time.

One observation: Six or eight people might reside in a home with only 800 square feet, tight quarters that often meant someone’s bed sat inches from the refrigerator.

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“Sound is a big deal if your head is right next to the thing,” McColgin said.

The Global No-Frost Team’s quest to create the world’s quietest refrigerator—chronicled as a successful case study in the 1999 best-seller “The Disney Way”—serves as a valuable reminder that innovation can happen anywhere.

The breathless coverage of new product launches by companies like Apple and Google might leave the impression that tech firms have a corner on great ideas—and that those ideas germinate largely in places like Silicon Valley and Boston.

McGolgin, a native of Westfield who launched an innovation-consulting firm shortly before returning to the area in 2000, found when he started calling on executives that many were shocked there was innovation expertise in Indiana.

He and like-minded businesspeople soon decided it was time to take action, creating a group that would share best practices across companies and build up the area’s reputation for innovation.

The Greater Indy Innovation Roundtable, launched in 2008, morphed two years ago into Centric, a thriving band of innovative thinkers working for companies as diverse as Eli Lilly and Stanley Security.

About 50 people typically show up at monthly luncheons, where they share ideas and hear guest speakers. But McGolgin, the 53-year-old president of the consulting firm Collidea, said Centric’s signature event is the Day of Innovation, which includes the Indiana Innovation Awards.

Past winners include some tech stars, such as the business-proposal-software firm TinderBox, but also names you wouldn’t necessarily expect. A two-time winner is People for Urban Progress, which turned the RCA Dome’s roof into wallets and handbags and Bush Stadium’s seats into bus-stop seating.

The deadline for nominations for this year’s awards is July 1. (For information, go to indianainnovationawards.oohology.com.) Organizers are hoping to draw 800 to the Day of Innovation, which will be Aug. 28 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre. Speakers will range from Jeffrey Baxter, a Grammy Award-winning musician who applies unconventional thinking to national security challenges, to Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who is leading the famed venue through a period of dramatic change.

Don’t expect a day of sleep-inducing dialogue. Those behind Centric have a rebellious streak. The tag line for this year’s event is, “Join the resistance against the status quo.”

The end game for Centric is to help companies in Indianapolis become more innovative and to establish the city as a recognized hub for innovation—a profile that could make the region a magnet to attract other innovative firms.

The quest involves cultural obstacles, including fear of failure and losing face. Centric’s message: Embrace the flops and share them widely so others can learn from the setbacks, rather than repeat the mistakes.

Robert Rodenbeck, director of R&D at Carmel-based Delta Faucet Co., has been attending Centric events almost since the beginning. He said that because companies attending the lunches are in different fields, he can talk more openly about what Delta is working on than he can within his industry.

“I’ve always been driven by taking on the riskier stuff,” he said, a mind-set that sometimes has hit resistance within Delta.

One of Delta’s successful product launches under Rodenbeck was Touch20 faucets, which are activated with the tap of a hand, eliminating the need to spin a knob or lift a lever with messy hands.

Rodenbeck said Delta nearly killed the product three times before it debuted in 2008.

“I think you could refer to it as fear of failure,” said Rodenbeck, who doesn’t blame colleagues for asking hard questions during development, a period when Delta was struggling. “Will it work? Are you setting yourself up for a major recall? It is very common when you are dealing with a new technology that people get uncomfortable.”•

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