What MasterCard is doing to stay innovative: Ed Glassman

From internal hackathons to soliciting employee solutions, here are a few things a giant payments company is doing to stay nimble.

Ed Glassman, right, on stage. (Image courtesy of MasterCard)

When a company gets really big, it can become deeply set in its ways. That’s a problem Ed Glassman has tackled several times throughout his career, according to a talk he gave at the Northside Innovation Festival this past Thursday in Wiliamsburg. The latest company he’s working with to stay innovative is MasterCard.

“You might see a piece of plastic and think that’s the business, but we see it entirely differently than that,” Glassman said in his talk.

He described MasterCard as a technology company that’s focused on managing payments. Glassman has previous experience working in the robotics and pharmaceutical industries. In each role he’s worked, Glassman says he found innovation to be a repeatable process. Creative and technical people work together on key problems, taking them from ideation to prototyping to product development to commercialization. The problem big companies often confrtont, however, is that costs increase dramatically, in a non-linear fashion, at each step in that process.

So the inclination for a company is to look for reasons to cut off a project early, but there’s a tension there, as well. In some cases, the process of developing a product for one reasons yields an unexpected insight about how it could be used for another reason. A famous example of this, he said, is Viagra, which was initially developed as a heart medication.

Some ways in which MasterCard is fostering innovation internally and what its led to, according to Glassman:

  • ASPIRE is a system created to throw problems out to employees across MasterCard worldwide in search of ideas for solutions. “We had a lot of great ideas, but they were getting stuck in the machine,” Glassman said.
  • To get to the next level, MasterCard created “Innovation Express.” These events function as internal hackathons. A problem area is defined, cross-discipline teams are formed from within the company and those teams work for 72 hours on the problem to come up with a pitch, deck and prototype solution. The strongest idea wins MasterCard gift cards and other prizes.
  • Some of these prototypes move deeper into the product development pipeline. We asked Glassman if he felt like some of the ideas the company decided to sit on would have made for a startup concept for an organization or team at a much smaller scale. He said, “I don’t think there’s stuff sitting on the shelf that would make someone say, that’s a great idea, I want to go do that.”
  • Some of the ideas have moved on to an incubator level, including the Start Path Accelerator. Glassman said that they are also collaborating with existing companies with a track record of growing ideas into products, such as TechStars, StartupBootcamp and Silicon Valley Bank.

“Cash is terrible. Cash is incredibly expensive. Cash costs societies massive amounts of money,” Glassman said. One of MasterCard’s innovation projects resulted in a new benefit card for South Africans in need. The card is biometrically linked to each beneficiary (by characteristics like voice or fingerprint), which makes it harder for others to use the card. Previously, Glassman said, benefits had been distributed one by one, in cash, forcing long waits in line, massive distribution costs and an easy timetable for thieves. Some 10 million beneficiaries received the card as it went live.

MasterCard Labs was launched in 2010.

Series: Brooklyn
Projects: Northside Festival

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