At USAA, every single employee is an innovator.

USAA’s Innovation Lab is dedicated to providing skills, resources, and support for its employees as they create cutting-edge technologies and new ways of getting things done. Its successful internal innovation program for its employees – the Innovation Community for the Enterprise, or ICE – has a presence throughout USAA’s extensive campus in San Antonio. Walking through various corridors at the headquarters, prominently displayed ICE posters feature photos of employees who have won recent innovation challenges.

The focus on innovation, an essential part of the company’s culture, traces back to USAA’s foundation.

USAA was founded in 1922 when its first employees, 25 Army officers, found themselves without auto insurance after being rejected due to job hazards in their military service. Those officers met that initial challenge with an innovative idea when they decided to establish a company to insure each other. With headquarters in San Antonio, USAA today offers insurance, investing, banking, and other financial services to more than 12 million military service members and eligible family worldwide.

USAA has maintained that innovative spirit for more than 95 years.

It was an employee who first submitted the idea for USAA’s Deposit@Mobile app which allows users to deposit checks via photos taken with a smartphone. USAA was first in the industry to introduce biometric authentication of account information via fingerprint or facial or voice recognition. The company pioneered offering members online access to their Bitcoin wallet with an aggregated view of their financial household.

USAA now offers voice-guided check depositing on its mobile app for visually impaired customers. The feature guides customers through positioning the phone’s camera to capturing the check’s image with verbal prompts like “move left/right,” “lift/lower device,” “hold steady,” and “image captured.” The new feature is included in a recent update to USAA’s iOS and Android apps.

Ever wonder if you would be insured while traveling with rideshare? In most cases, your standard auto insurance does not provide coverage in case of a mishap on your next Uber or Lyft ride, and the rideshare company’s commercial policy may not fully cover you either. USAA was the first major carrier to offer rideshare gap insurance.

All these innovations were submitted by USAA employees.

Employees can check out RFID-tagged items from USAA’s tech locker to help them create ways to repurpose existing technologies for new applications. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The mission of the Innovation Lab is to provide all employees with a way to actualize their ideas. The VIP – Volunteer Innovation Program – matches resources to individual employees so they can develop their ideas, no matter where they work.

In the Innovation Lab, a telescoping pole with a camera on its end gives adjusters a view of a damaged roof without leaving the ground. An iPad app enables members to re-create the scene of an accident using cars they animate with their own voice-over. New ideas are developed to continually improve the customer service experience.

To support its workforce, which includes spouses of deployed military members, employees working remotely can use a workerbot, a Skype-equipped laptop on a Beam model robot controlled by the employee calling in.

(If you watch Big Bang Theory, it’s the same type of robot the lead character Sheldon uses.)

The investment from the organization’s leadership in resources and mission helps fuel USAA’s innovation effort, which is directly tied to everyone’s work. Teams working on new projects often come from different departments or disciplines, which prevents ‘silos’ from forming and innovation budding all over the company. All employee proposals – in 2016, around 10,000 were submitted and a record-breaking 1,206 were launched – are fully vetted by integrated teams with an attitude of “fail fast, fail cheaply.”

“Employee innovation begins as soon as they are hired,” said Lea Sims, assistant vice president of employee innovation. “We share stories with them and train them to be innovators because innovation is everyone’s job.”

The result is an astounding 94% of USAA’s more than 30,000 employees participating in the Innovation Community for Enterprise.

“Half of our workforce participates in the ICE program every single month,” said Janelle Dziuk, executive director of employee innovation.

USAA’s Patent Tree adorns the hallway outside the Innovation Lab. The leaves are engraved when ideas are implemented, and feature the employee(s) who submitted it as well as the patent number. At the time of publication, the company boasted 709 patented ideas. In 2016 alone, 61 patents were issued to USAA, which holds the patent on all employee ideas that are successfully submitted.

USAA’s ‘Patent Tree’ has leaves engraved with an implemented idea, the employee(s) who submitted it, and the patent number. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

What distinguishes USAA’s innovation lab from others, according to Vice President of IT Innovation Research and Development Tim Brown, is its focus on “revolutionary innovation.” Rather than zoom in on what customers want today, USAA employees aim to meet the needs of future customers and markets. Revolutionary innovation, thus, is associated with uncertainty, so hypotheses are often refuted after being test-run.

“The revolutionary innovation team was developed to do just that,” Brown said. “To test ideas for a future market.”

USAA Members Lab Debuts

USAA recently opened up its innovative pilot ideas for USAA members with online access. Launched in February 2017, they can opt in on trying new and developing capabilities.

Members can enroll in pilot programs, which will give them early access to new features, products, services, and tools USAA is developing. Their feedback may be used to make improvements to innovations before they are made available to all members.

USAA Labs will help create an online member community to the same innovative spirit that extends the company’s culture, allowing members to contribute to the continued success of USAA.

“USAA Labs takes us back to our member roots,” Sims said. “By inviting members to provide feedback, they can participate in the development of products and services.”

A USAA member myself, I registered on their website and received the opportunity to vote online on specific ideas and concepts developed in different pilot programs.

Some lucky employees have been getting hands-on experience with drones since USAA entered into a collaboration with Roboticists Without Borders at Texas A&M University in 2010. In April 2016, USAA was among the first insurers to win Federal Aviation Administration approval to test drones that could potentially speed up the claims process for members affected by natural disasters.

With so many innovations being pitched, vetted, evaluated, tested, and implemented, USAA is growing at a rapid pace.

“We’re on track to hire 8,000 new employees globally right now,” Dziuk said.

Employees with an innovative spirit should apply.

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Iris Gonzalez

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.