Movers + Shapers: Monetizing R&D

Thornton Tomasetti’s CORE studio generates ideas that lead to product spinoffs.

March 12, 2018 |
CORE team members gather to discuss a project design

CORE team members gather to discuss a project design (l. to r.): Leland Jobson, Computational Designer; David Mans, Associate Software Developer; Margaret Wang, Applications Engineer; and Dan Reynolds, Senior Engineer, CORE studio and Specialty Structures. Left: Bess Adler/Thornton Tomasetti.

Last November, Thornton Tomasetti partnered with RWDI, an engineering firm whose specialties include wind damping for supertall buildings. The duo established a new company called Hummingbird Kinetics, which offers affordable and flexible tuned mass damping solutions that reduce the impact of wind motion on tall structures.

Hummingbird Kinetics is one of several spinoff companies that have emerged from a unique nexus of innovation and commerce at Thornton Tomasetti, which combines internally funded research with product development, and provides an interdisciplinary collaborative platform for the firm’s 1,200-plus employees.

“Our goal is to change the culture of the firm and contribute to innovation in our industry,” says Robert Otani, PE, LEED AP BD+C, Principal and Special Structures leader with the 62-year-old firm.

Otani was one of the founders, in 2011, of CORE studio, Thornton Tomasetti’s virtual incubator that encourages interaction among the firm’s design and construction teams. He is also one of three associates—with Elisabeth Malsch, PhD, PE, Principal in the Forensics practice, and Pawel Woelke, PhD, PE, Associate Principal in the Weidlinger Applied Sciences practice—who serve on an internal committee within CORE that evaluates employee proposals for new products and business opportunities.

CORE comprises two components: CORE lab, which manages and nurtures internal R&D; and CORE studio, which has its own staff, and focuses on projects and applications. Malsch says CORE is now integrated into Thornton Tomasetti’s five-year business plan.

 

Hummingbird Kinetics offers a patented high-performance fluid harmonic mass damping solutionHummingbird Kinetics offers a patented high-performance fluid harmonic mass damping solution that reduces the impact of wind motion on supertall buildings. The startup is one of several products spawned from Thornton Tomasetti’s virtual incubator, CORE studio. Pierre Ghisbain/Thornton Tomasetti.

 

After CORE launched, Woelke took a page from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania to initiate innovation tournaments to generate employee engagement and proposals. “It’s a great way to pull ideas out of people,” says Otani. And over the years, CORE studio has developed solutions for a host of projects, such as parametric modeling and high-level workflow guidance for the 178,000-sf Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Student Center in Daytona Beach, Fla.

A number of analytical and visualization tools have also sprung from CORE, which publishes papers on the results from its research and projects.

 

corporate suite Support

In the first phase of the proposal review process, a submitting team must come up with a work plan and be willing to share its ideas with other practices within the firm. Malsch recalls that, initially, too few ideas were getting out of the gate because CORE had been too quick to “skunk” them. Now, the process gives an idea a little more breathing room, and more time for teams to see what’s feasible.

“CORE encourages employees to think beyond their own work, and gives them access to the company’s resources,” says Woelke. A key element in any proposal is how the team plans to work with other practices and departments within the company. “Innovation starts with multidisciplinary thinking,” he says.

The internal committee evaluates proposals three times a year and chooses the best ones to receive initial funding intended to deliver a proof of concept. Malsch, Otani, and Woelke manage each approved project, based on their expertise (structures for Otani, forensics and advanced analytics for Malsch, and applied science and defense for Woelke).

Projects that make it to the second phase receive additional funding. The firm declined to reveal on the record how much, but confirmed that projects in the second phase get about double the funding of the first.

Throughout that second stage, feedback to each team comes from an oversight committee, which includes Thornton Tomasetti’s Chairman and CEO Thomas Scarangello, its President Ray Daddazio, Managing Principals Michael Squarzini and Gary Panariello, and Director Grant McCullagh. The final review—where Thornton Tomasetti decides whether the idea is commercially or strategically viable enough to merit further development—can involve as many as 60 people.

 

Thornton Tomasetti’s CORE studio organizes and hosts innovation tournaments and hackathons.Thornton Tomasetti’s CORE studio encourages innovative thinking and creative problem solving among its 1,200 employees. Courtesy Thornton Tomasetti.

 

Ideas commercialized

Otani says CORE is definitely “a talent draw,” because it offers enterprising associates a place to spread their wings. “It gives employees an outlet outside of their daily grind to try something different, to engage in a pet project,” says Woelke.

On a corporate level, CORE is a critical cog in Thornton Tomasetti’s long-range growth engine.

In May 2016, the firm launched TTWiiN, a privately held company formed to commercialize new technology. The launch occurred eight months after Thornton Tomasetti merged with Weidlinger Associates, a deal that brought together companies with reputations for developing new products and services for the AEC industry.

TTWiiN initially showcased several products that were already in various stages of development. These included:

 

— PZFlex: cloud-based simulation software for the design and development of piezoelectric and ultrasonic devices

— VistaMat Suite: a trio of software tools for advanced material failure modeling

— Pumpkin Mounts: shock and vibration isolation mount technology for the defense, industrial, and transportation sectors

— Hummingbird Kinetics: products that mitigate structural vibrations for tall buildings and long-span structures

— Konstru: a 3D model automation and collaboration platform that enables project contributors to exchange data among widely used building design and analysis software packages.

 

One of CORE lab’s mandates, says Otani, is to funnel potential products to TTWiiN, at which point the company might bring in outside experts to drive the idea to commercialization, as it did with RWDI for Hummingbird. And CORE is definitely in “growth mode,” says Malsch, to encourage more of Thornton Tomasetti’s associates to submit proposals and be willing to put in the work to see them through.

Ultimately, Thornton Tomasetti wants to expand its portfolio as a go-to solutions provider beyond its traditional practices. For example, the firm recently completed the fabrication drawings for One Vanderbilt, a 1,400-foot skyscraper under construction in New York, even though it’s not the SE on that project.

“It just made sense to the client for us to do them” because of the firm’s growing brand for innovation, explains Otani. Woelke adds, “Our goal is to get ahead of the curve, and to drive change by example.”

 

Team-based exercises at the CORE-hosted AEC  Technology Symposium and HackathonTeam-based exercises at the CORE-hosted AEC Technology Symposium and Hackathon, October 20-22, 2017, at Thornton Tomasetti’s New York headquarters. Courtesy Thornton Tomasetti.

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