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INNOVATION Labs and layups Sixers turn portion of Camden practice facility into an incubator

Scott O'Neil, CEO, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and Prudential Center at the Philadelphia 76ers Business Operations Facility in Camden.-(PHOTOS BY AARON HOUSTON)

The Philadelphia 76ers had all the usual discussions about what to do with some excess office space at their new 125,000-square-foot training complex in Camden.
Everything from a coffee shop to a museum was discussed.

It wasn’t until team officials discussed the space with one of their sponsors, Kimball Office, that an outside-the-box idea came to the forefront: An innovation lab that will serve as an incubator for startups.

With that, the Sixers Innovation Lab Crafted by Kimball was born.

“The original idea for the space had been more conventional,” said Chris Heck, chief revenue officer for the team. “But, in conversations with Kimball Office, the idea of this (innovation lab) made all the sense in the world.

“Starting a retail operation wouldn’t serve a bigger purpose. It would be nice to have a coffee shop there, but it wouldn’t do much to change the way business is done.”

The innovation lab not only will give five area entrepreneurs free office space (furnished by Kimball Office, of course) but the winning entrepreneurs also will have access to advisers from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, venture capital firms and from top-ranking executives from the sports, entertainment, media and consumer product industries, including StubHub, DraftKings, NextStage, Techstars and DreamIt.

“It’s nice to have a world-renowned university and business program in our backyard,” Heck said of Wharton. “Several people on our staff are Wharton graduates and many of us have spoken to Wharton classes over the years, so we have a strong professional and personal relationship with the school.”

Connecting a basketball team, a business school and startups may seem a bit out of the ordinary to some. But not to Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil.

“As the Philadelphia 76ers organization eagerly awaits our move into a state-of-the-art basketball training complex, we thought it provided the perfect opportunity to include the Sixers Innovation Lab Crafted by Kimball, to drive the entrepreneurial spirit that is at the very foundation of this region,” he said.

And they feel basketball and business are more connected than people realize.

“Over the last three years, we have gone through a rebuild on the court, and that gave us time to rebuild our philosophical approach to the marketplace from the business side,” Heck said.

Besides, he said, running a team is like running a business.

“On our basketball team, we have 15 roster spots and we want to maximize the team efforts and ability as much as we can, on top of what the individual players bring to the table,” Heck said. “That means better sports science, analytics, nutrition, training and conditioning. It’s no different than what we do on the business side. We have the fundamentals — selling tickets and selling sponsorships — but how do we do that better? The same way — better analytics, science and so on.”

The team began accepting applications earlier this month and will do so until the end of September.

And in a unique marketing move, the innovation lab will do more than showcase Kimball’s products. It will give the supplier a showcase for potentially growing businesses and to provide a real-world demonstration of its products to visitors and startup mentors.

Katie O’Reilly, the team’s senior vice president for business development and brand marketing, feels the Sixers will get plenty of out the arrangement, too.

“We believe this is completely on brand for us,” she said. “From the outside perspective, it might not be so obvious, but we, as an organization, like to do things differently. We want to align ourselves with these entrepreneurs. There is a growing tech and innovation space in Philly and we, here in the organization, all know that right now there is a renaissance happening. This helps us to be a part of that from the ground level.”

According to Heck, the Sixers organization is in the habit of bucking the conventional business wisdom at work in most other professional sports teams.

“If you dig deep in our organization, you’ll see nine out of 10 things we do don’t happen in team sports, like the move to Camden,” he said.

Heck said the innovation lab and other Camden initiatives are more than just an effort to stand apart from other teams.

“We aren’t reinventing our space for the sake of reinventing,” Heck said. “We are doing so for the sake of doing things better, to be smarter and more progressive, and to move things forward in the right direction for our business.”

E-mail to: dariam@njbiz.com

Daria Meoli

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