5 Corporate Skunkworks You Should Know About

June 15, 2017, 1:00 PM UTC

A robust startup ecosystem seems to be working for Silicon Valley, so why not the rest of us? Walmart (No. 1 on the 2017 Fortune 500 list) launched its first technology incubator in March, becoming the latest company with not just a skunkworks (though it has one of those too), but also a Bay Area–style incubator, accelerator, or lab.

The skunkworks has a rich history in American business. Lockheed Martin launched the first one 1943. Indeed, “Skunk Works” is the official name of the defense contractor’s Advanced Development Programs. Now, plenty of the country’s largest companies are creating separate divisions inside their companies where employees can work on advanced and oftentimes secretive projects. Alphabet’s Google X and Facebook’s Building 8 are among the most buzzy examples.

Having separation—both physical and institutional—between innovators and the rest of an organization was considered crucial to Skunk Works’ creator, Kelly Johnson, whose motto was, “Be quick, be quiet, and be on time.”

Rather than develop purely ideas from scratch, some companies are choosing to nurture young companies in their early stages through corporate accelerator programs. And it’s not just Silicon Valley tech giants that are investing in young talent; Coca Cola, Deloitte, Lowe’s, and Target are all running active acceleration initiatives.

There’s also the Bay Area-test VC route. Some Fortune 500s are investing in early-stage companies completely external to their operations. Intel Capital, Google Ventures, and Salesforce Ventures were the most active corporate venture capital funds last year by number of deals, according to CB Insights.

Here, some of the most recent splashy innovation moves by Fortune 500 companies.


In April, the software giant began recruiting engineers for what it is calling a “startup” within its U.S. operations. Employees of the new venture will build custom cloud apps for Oracle’s customers. The startup will operate as a separate unit within the company, with its two physical Solution Engineering Centers located far away from the enterprise software provider’s Redwood City headquarters, but will create products purely for internal purposes. The areas of focus are cloud computing, big data analytics, mobile computing, internet of things, and cybersecurity.

Where: Reston, VA and Denver, CO


The social network raised eyebrows around the tech world by launching its first startup accelerator not in its Silicon Valley home base, but in Paris. The Facebook Startup Garage will be housed in Station F, which calls itself “the world’s biggest startup campus.” The company’s employees will work with about a dozen startups for six months at a time, offering them office space and help with functions like marketing, technical development and user experience. For its inaugural class, which starts in September, Facebook is selecting data-driven startups with a focus on “personal information innovation.”

Where: Paris, France


The world’s largest retailer has launched an internal incubator in Silicon Valley back in March. Called Store No. 8 (in homage to an early location where the company experimented with store layouts), the incubator is focused on transforming the future of retail. Walmart has already announced one portfolio company, called Code Eight, which has recently hired clothing rental company Rent the Runway founder Jenny Fleiss to lead its operations. The startup is still in stealth mode, but its main product will be mobile app that uses AI to “make shopping magical and delightful,” says Fleiss.

Where: Silicon Valley, CA and NYC


The petrochemical giant has teamed up with the University of Delaware and the state government to create the Delaware Innovation Space. The 100,000-square-foot center will house dozens of early-stage, science-based startups that will be mentored by an outside non-profit governed by a six-member board, which will have representatives from all three partners. DuPont also plans to keep a close eye on the companies as potential future acquisition targets. The company is pitching in $1.25 million in initial funding, $15 million in real estate and $2 million worth of lab equipment to the project, which is opening this summer.

Where: Wilmington, DE


In addition to providing capital like a traditional VC firm, Symantec Ventures, which the cyber security company launched in March, will give young companies in its industry access to its threat data and market insights. Data collection is a major barrier to entry into the cyber space; by giving startups access to its ecosystem, Symantec hopes to accelerate companies’ time to market. The software giant is looking at investments as future acquisition opportunities, but it is not making or requiring any promises.

Where: Mountain View, CA

A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Titans of Business Think Small.”

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