NEW YORK — A think tank is tapping high IQ individuals to develop new products for brands across a range of industries. ProdigyWorks offers access to a network of Mensa International members, helping companies like Mondelez International, The Coca-Cola Co., Dunkin’ and more accelerate their innovation efforts and stay ahead of the competition.
“Companies come to us with a range of developed problems or issues,” said Ted Curtin, chief marketing and innovation officer at ProdigyWorks. “It can be very specific, where they know exactly what they need help with. Others may come to us and say, ‘We’re losing market share,’ or ‘We see this trend happening and we want to get in front of it.’”
The think tank works with clients to pin down a goal, then looks to its network of nearly 2,000 Mensa members to form a small panel of “prodigies.” Potential panelists are vetted with an audition question to determine if they’re the right fit for a specific challenge.
The result is a diverse group of 15 to 20 high IQ individuals with any number of different backgrounds. A panel could span Nobel prize-winning physicists and NASA scientists to farmers, teachers, professional athletes, nurses and more.
“Companies can end up with a panel that doesn’t look anything like them,” Mr. Curtin said. “That’s intentional. If a panel looks just like you, couldn’t you do it yourself? We find cool combinations of individuals who think differently than most people. They connect the dots where most people can’t.”
After establishing a goal and assembling a team, ProdigyWorks brings the panelists into a secure online portal and presents them with the challenge. What follows is two weeks of around-the-clock collaborative ideation.
“This isn’t an afternoon brainstorm,” Mr. Curtin said. “They’ve got the portal on their mobile device and on their computer. Whether they’re walking their dog, cooking dinner or it’s the middle of the night, they’re able to input an idea that everyone else can see.”
The creative sparks fly from there. Clients help steer the panel during the two-week ideation period, ranking ideas and concepts to create a feedback loop with the prodigies. Panelists are provided a limited amount of data to help guide their thinking.
ProdigyWorks takes insights and research from the brand team and curates only a small segment of it for the prodigies.
“We don’t want to burden them with the same knowledge and biases the client has, but you need some boundaries and guardrails,” Mr. Curtin said. “We give them just enough to run free but in the right direction.”
ProdigyWorks in April was acquired by RTI research. Data from the market research company helps validate concepts sparked by the extended brainstorms.
The process stands in stark contrast to the rigid way most companies operate, but its playful and organic structure yields real results, Mr. Curtin said. Around 90% of challenges result in a new product being introduced to market.
“There’s a reason we’ve worked with all of these companies across different industries, and there’s a reason they keep coming back to refill their pipeline,” Mr. Curtin said. “The process works if you trust it.”
He pointed to a partnership with Mondelez International as an example. The company asked ProdigyWorks for help creating innovations that could keep the Oreo brand fresh and fun for its core consumers. The panel — comprised of a food blogger, professional chefs, a millennial cupcake entrepreneur, a former marketing executive, a candy maker, a culinary director and a molecular gastronomer — delivered more than 500 ideas in two weeks.
Those initial ideas were culled down to 220 concepts that were further refined to 30 viable options. Fourteen concepts advanced into testing, and several new varieties of the classic sandwich cookie ended up on grocery store shelves. Current in-market successes include Oreo cinnamon bun, Oreo blueberry pie and Oreo firework.
A panel featuring a party planner, a Lego designer, a comic book writer and more helped The Topps Company Inc. develop new concepts for the Juicy Drop and Push Pop brands. The ideation session led to Push Pop gummy roll, the brand’s first foray into the gummy category, and Juicy Drop re-mix, an interactive treat featuring sweet and sour candy in a portable container.
Other successes include a partnership with Chili’s. The Brinker International-owned restaurant chain tasked ProdigyWorks with refreshing its menu to appeal to millennials without alienating baby boomers, its core customer base. Prodigies including food bloggers, marketers and more created nearly 500 new concepts.
After evaluation, testing and development, five of the panel’s Fresh Mex recommendations were added to the Chili’s menu. One-in-four guests now order an entree identified by ProdigyWorks.
The think tank’s record of success underscores the critical role innovation plays in a rapidly changing marketplace, Mr. Curtin said.
“Innovation is often a box-check or an afterthought,” he said. “Whether you’re tapping into ProdigyWorks, going to an agency or focusing internally, it’s important to have innovation at the forefront. It shouldn’t be this occasional thing that blips onto the radar.”