Every year since 2011, Under Armour has brought entrepreneurs from around the world to its global HQ in Baltimore, MD, for Future Show, a two-day innovation challenge designed to spur innovation within its ranks. UA’a first such incubator, for example, yielded the MagZip for single-arm zipping that’s now found in several UA products.
Even though the company has more than 40 engineers and scientists working on its next big innovation, these startup-friendly forums serve as an open call to potential partners for product and feature pitches. It’s also an acknowledgment that the best ideas don’t always originate internally, and that fresh eyes and an outside perspective can lead to smarter ways to improve what you’re doing.
So collaboration and co-creation are the order of the day. “It’s where our greatest innovations are born,” as UA puts it. “Where the heart and soul of our Brand comes to life in advantages for athletes. Secured by biometric locks that only a handful of people in this world can open, our innovation incubator in Baltimore, MD, is dictating the future of how athletes dress every single day.”
At each Future Show, Under Armour employees vote on their favorite products and innovations and the winners give a Shark Tank-like presentation to company executives.
Entries at the Future Show held earlier this month include:
• Tangram Smart Rope, an LED-embedded jump rope (above) from Korea that displays fitness data mid-air, mid workout and syncs with your smartphone to track workouts.
• CoachUp, a sensor-based technology from Diamond Kinetics that enables baseball or softball players “ to capture swing data at more than 11,000 data points per second so in real time you can see and understand your swing like never before.”
• Arccos Golf performance tracker that monitors distance, fairways hit or missed, putting success and other game metrics.
• Handana, a high-performance sweatband
• RaesWear, a pouch-like system for carrying basics—your phone, keys, cash—while working out.
Under Armour EVP of innovation Kevin Haley sees the annual R&D competition as integral to the company’s marketing, strategy and brand positioning as an underdog with an innovative spirit.
“If you go back in time, our founders were the athletes and looking at innovation that could be done quickly by partnering with other people,” Haley told Fast Company. “They didn’t have a lab. There was no R&D department. So it was all about partnering with people who were the best at what they did and bring to light innovations that may not have come to fruition otherwise.”
“Whether you’re talking to a well-funded Silicon Valley startup with $200 million in VC money, or that person in their garage, or to Dow Chemical who happens to have a new polymer with potential—they’re all in the same boat in some ways,” he added. “They lack the four things we can provide—the brand, the marketing, the distribution, and the sourcing.”
While RaesWear won the top prize of $50,000 at its latest Future Show, UA will for the first time work in some way with all the finalists as the $4 billion global brand morphs into a sports technology company.
In July, UA acquired Gritness Inc., a fitness schedule management software maker founded in 2013, the same year UA bought Austin startup MapMyFitness Inc. for $150 million. Founder Robin Thurston, now UA’s chief digital officer, has plans to hire 100 technical workers this year.
“Our commitment to innovation originally came out of necessity, and we’ve never lost that sense of entrepreneurship and collaboration,” added Haley. “We look at innovation as a completely open platform. A lot of companies are afflicted with Not Invented Here Syndrome. We’re the opposite. I actually get graded more harshly if too much of what we’re making and introducing to the market is made in-house.”
The flip side of that openness is protecting its IP. At UA, the mantra is Protect This House, which UA Associate Counsel Tess Casey says is not as simple as filing a trademark. “Under Armour is supposed to be creative and innovative, and if we’re perceived by the public as knocking other people off and copying, it’s going to be killer to our brand.”
“Once you have the registration, you have to enforce it,” she added.