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Public Utility Company Exelon Shows Other Sectors and Firms How to Be Innovative

Exelon is a Chicago-based public utility—a traditional, conservative firm. But by some of the moves taking place lately under CEO Christopher Crane—including a new “intrapreneurship” initiative and a flirtation with entrepreneurs known as “Dancing with the Startups”—Exelon seems to be charting a course of reinvention that is unusual for such an old-line concern. And chiefs in other traditional verticals might want to take notice.

Earlier this month, for instance, a few teams of Exelon employees got the opportunity to pitch their ideas for new processes, services and products to executives at the company for the right to get selected as one of four winning intrapreneurs. Exelon will give each of the winners seed funding to “try out their idea and to get to a minimum viable product to see if we can get it to the next phase,” Brian Hoff, director of emerging technology told CEO Briefing.

“Employees have good ideas that aren’t always making it to the executives or getting into our long-range plans,” Hoff said. “There’s a sort of pent-up supply of these ideas.”

Initially, Exelon designed a program to see whether it could build an effective model for transforming promising internal notions into business results. Once the concept was proved they threw the doors open to “crowdsourcing” of new ideas by any of Exelon’s 30,000 employees. “We said, ‘We want to hear from you. What are your ideas?’” Hoff said.

“Employees have good ideas that aren’t always making it to the executives. “There’s a sort of pent-up supply of these ideas.”

Exelon got about 300 ideas from employees and then a team selected those that aligned best with the utility’s strategic priorities.

In addition, two years ago Exelon launched a program called “Dancing with the Startups,” along with the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition’s Corporate Startup Challenge. Under the initiative, Exelon sponsors various ways to foster relationships with startups, venture capitalists and the local university community. It offers prize money for contests for the best ideas and business models and has brought some of the entrepreneurs into the company “to try out their products and technologies,” Hoff said.

“If we think there’s an investment opportunity, we have an investment arm, and after we’ve piloted something and seen that it has value, we can make an equity investment,” he said. Or sometimes there’s a good fit within Exelon. Or maybe the startup is more interested in strategic advice than cash.”

Among the Chicago-area companies with which Exelon has formed relationships are ADMCi, a design thinking school, and AKTA, a UX mobile-development company which has become an Inc. 500 leader.

Exelon is just one example of dozens of major and mid-market companies trying to uncover transformative technologies and ideas and the talent behind them, and attempt to harness some to benefit their businesses instead of allowing the possibility that such potential disrupters could weaken them in the fast-changing business environment.

And if a utility that was founded more than a century ago can tack toward reinvention in that way, most other companies can as well.


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