Innovating in ‘The Lab’
Michigan State University Federal Credit Unions' Ami Iceman and Ben Maxim discuss The Lab at MSUFCU at the CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council Conference Friday in Los Angeles.

Innovating in ‘The Lab’

Michigan State University Federal Credit Union creates lab to turn ideas into projects.

March 14, 2022

Michigan State University Federal Credit Union takes pride in its innovation.

So much so that the $6.7 billion asset credit union in East Lansing created a lab to push innovation forward, explore new ideas, and use a scientific process to determine its market opportunity and organizational fit. The Lab at MSUFCU conducts research, kicks off growth projects, examines promotion and public relations opportunities, and explores fintechs, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, Buy Now Pay Later, and other emerging technologies. 

The lab partners with fintechs through the Reseda Group, a Michigan State University Federal CUSO.  The leaders of the The Lab at MSUFCU make an effort to involve every department of the credit union, enhance employee engagement, and allows members to interact through InnoHub.

“We’re trying to make it a process where everyone’s on board,” says Ben Maxim, vice president of digital strategy and innovation at $6.2 billion asset Michigan State University Federal, East Lansing, Mich. “As we started bringing people into the lab from different parts of the credit union, it helped their experience and maintained employees. And hopefully when they’re further along in their career and their roles change, they’re ready, they know what to do, and they enhance the process.”

Michigan State University Federal Vice President of Research and Digital Experience Ami Iceman, speaking alongside Maxim Friday at the CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council Conference in Los Angeles, agrees, adding that “innovation is not just a single person, it’s the entire organization backing these concepts.”

For credit unions that decide to focus on innovation, Iceman has five tips for getting the process started: 

  • Identify where you are and where you want to be;
  • Create lifecycle expectations with teams and vendors;
  • Listen and learn;
  • Pilot, play, and innovate; and
  • Plan for what happens after innovation.

Michigan State University Federal’s path toward an innovation lab started in January 2020. Since then, Maxim says The Lab at MSUFCU representatives have spoken to more than 215 innovative fintech, digital transformation, and emerging technology startups. Those conversations led to 10 fintech partner pilots, five of which have been completed. Four of the completed pilots have been greenlit to full implementation.

The path toward implementation begins with research and an idea. The lab hosts workshops in which 36 employees participate in creating, testing, and innovating. The workshops’ innovation strategies include increasing digital engagement, providing human-digital interactions, improving digital as a service channel, improving operational efficiency, and being responsive to emerging trends.

A pilot is either greenlit to become a long-term project or is put on the shelf and documented in case it will be useful in the future. Pilots that turn into projects go to the credit union’s strategic projects team, receive feedback, pass through the information technology department, and go into beta testing before being executed. The execution phase begins with the launch, but also must include tracking, maintaining, and assessing the project.

Iceman urges innovators not to forget about what happens after implementation, suggesting that projects can’t stand alone and must continue to receive support and management.

“Unsupported innovation becomes unused,” she says, reiterating that the point of all innovation is enhancing the member experience. “Innovation is great, fun, and wonderful, then somebody calls and says, ‘How do I fix that app?’ If nobody is there to help, the innovation has given no value.”

While Michigan State University Federal is a large credit union, Maxim says that an innovation lab can be scaled to fit any asset size and member base.

“All this stuff isn’t happening because we’re a large credit union,” he says. “It’s happening because we chose to focus on it.”