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An Inside Look at Saucony’s Innovation Lab

The brand is constantly running through new ideas at its headquarters in Lexington, Mass.

The brand is constantly running through new ideas at its headquarters in Lexington, Mass.

There’s often nothing quite so elusive and secretive at a corporate HQ as an Innovation Lab. You know the drill. An athletic shoe company will take you around to see lots of cool mockups and design drawings, but there’s always that one door in the building that you just can’t get inside. At Saucony’s headquarters in Lexington, Mass., though, the door to that lab is refreshingly open.

Saucony’s Human Performance & Innovation Lab is run by Saucony vice president Spencer White. The lab, in a large, open space, is dotted with a few workstations,some large video and computer screens, 3D motion capturing devices and an impact-sensing force plate treadmill, and sits at the end of an open-plan floor occupied by dozens of the brand’s design and marketing staff. Entrance to the lab is via large, rolling garage door-like openings, which creates a feeling of openness to the space.

On a recent visit to the headquarters, White, Saucony president Richie Woodworth and senior vice president-global product Pat O’Malley offered Running Insight a tour of the lab and shared their views on what the word “innovation” means to them—how it is achieved, dreamed up and put into action.

The purpose of the Innovation Lab is twofold, Woodworth says.

“One is to validate concepts we have in our products already at market and second is to delve into the realm of innovation,” he says. “What’s the consumer looking for? What is a runner looking 
for? What new running experiences can we bring to the consumer that provide a better way to run or a better experience? That is the definition of innovation for us—creating a better running experience.”

Woodworth describes the open-door nature of the company’s lab as unusual but purposeful.

“No fingerprints 
or eye scans are needed to get in. We built the lab trying to ensure it was built into everyday thinking,” he says. “That is a base foundation for what we think of as a culture of innovation. The lab is the epicenter for that. If a designer has an idea or a problem, they walk right in and say ‘I’m thinking about this’ and Spencer can test it. Or he can share research. There are no gates to get that feedback. It helps us think about innovation as a daily task.”

Saucony, which was purchased by Stride Rite in 2005 and became a part of Michigan-based Wolverine World Wide in 2012, has gone through a transformation in the past decade. Woodworth, president of Saucony since 2006, has helped the brand become a thought leader in the running space.

“People will look to us to see what is new, and 10 or 15 years ago that wasn’t the case for Saucony,” Woodworth says. “We leaped from fast followers to now we have in some cases changed the conversation in the industry.”

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One key has been Saucony focusing on “geometries.” The brand switched to an 8mm heel-toe offset in most of the shoes across its line, a move that was spurred on by its research into minimalism. While the brand never chased the barefoot, zero-drop craze, it did make significant changes that its research indicated were needed.

“Minimalism was the consumer asking for something different. Our job is to figure out what they’re really asking for and then deliver it,” O’Malley says. “We can do that because we have no pressure to invent things here. We do have pressure to innovate. With an invention you start with the shoe, but with innovation you start with the runner. We innovate around the runner.”

White points out that while Saucony is not a “giant company” that plans out product five years in advance, its innovation lab “gives us freedom to react quickly and innovate as if we did have those five years. Our planning process can be sped up, we can test those concepts in a shorter period of time. Innovation can’t be ‘let’s take forever’ and it is not just about advanced concepts. If it works better than the previous model then it is making the product more functional.”

O’Malley says Saucony has “a very defined bullseye” and one that allows employees to be courageous. “We have to answer one question: ‘Does this make it better for the runner?’ And when that is your bullseye it gives you the courage to try things. When we want to take a risk we can get everyone in the room and debate it and ask the question ‘What is better for the runner?’ And that allows us to take calculated risks, more so than anywhere else I have been.”

The consumer is demanding innovation, says O’Malley. “Six or seven years ago, consumers started to ask for something different, something lighter, lower offsets, minimal shoes. That opened the door for us to do things we had research for, but it gave us the courage to try things because the consumer wanted it.”

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Built four years ago, Saucony’s innovation lab 
is a space that the brand uses to do everything from testing prototypes to doing research on runners of all varieties, including the brand’s elite athletes.

“We use it to collect data that helps us understand how runners move,” White explains.

In doing so, the team looks at the entire runner, not just the feet. Sensors are attached to runners for 3D motion captures and the treadmill measures force. As a result, when a runner runs in the lab, you can see what part of their body is absorbing stress and measure changes in things like stride and shoe dynamics. In 2014, the brand opened a Saucony Stride Lab with a similar force plate treadmill at the new Boulder Running Company store in Denver and has begun to use that data in its shoe design process too.

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In 2015, the results of some of Saucony’s recent innovation will be evident in the new ISO-Series of footwear, O’Malley says. Shoes in the ISO-Series include the Triumph, Hurricane and Zealot, and include the brand’s new technologies: ISOFIT and PWRGRID+. The ISOFIT dynamic fit system adapts to the runner’s foot in action, allowing the shoe to move in harmony with the foot. The PWRGRID+ platform, meanwhile, delivers enhanced cushioning.

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