Across multiple companies at Koch Industries, innovation teams are working on inspired solutions to solve tough challenges.
One team converted a building at Koch’s headquarters from an EPA Energy Star into an energy superstar by reducing energy usage for heating and cooling. Another team developed a safer, more efficient way to clean out the evaporators (equipment that separates water from product) at the company’s ethanol plants. And yet another team helped reduce sick days by deploying hand sanitizer stations at key locations across the company.
These weren’t solutions that came from management, though, but rather ideas from college students interning at Koch Industries who took part in the Intern Innovation Challenge. Now in its fourth year, the competition gives interns hands-on experience by working with their peers and Koch mentors to provide solutions to real-world problems – all while helping change the way Koch operates for the better.
“It doesn’t matter who you are -- whether you’re an intern who has been here a month or you’re an employee who has been here 30 years -- each of us has the capacity to create real value by making things better,” said Joe Woodward, internship program manager with Koch College Recruiting. “It’s about finding that balance of the humility to learn and the courage to challenge.”
The competition paired each intern team with a Koch coach to help guide their ideas and prepare them for the ultimate innovation pitch to key decision-makers within the company. This level of ownership is part of what makes the challenge unique: Intern teams develop their own plans, identify and onboard business partners, then actually sell their ideas to executives who can apply them to real-world situations.
While just one team was ultimately crowned the winner, seven teams were selected as finalists this year, and more than half of all the ideas pitched are moving forward or have already been executed.
One of the finalist teams working out of Koch Industries’ headquarters consisted of interns Jordan Cox, Kiara Flanagan, Ogden Shimkus and Jack Ziegler. They discovered that, while the company’s main headquarters is EPA Energy Star certified (meaning the building is an energy-efficient top performer that saves money without sacrificing performance), there was still room for improvement.
Initially, the team set out to reduce energy usage by swapping out old fluorescent lighting with LED lighting. But, in talking with their resources in Koch facilities management, they discovered the company was spending significantly more on heating and cooling, also known as the HVAC system.
“We knew we wanted to do something with energy,” said Flanagan, “so we started looking at lights, but that had been done before. After talking with the facilities team, they said that that company’s HVAC systems account for about half of the entire electric bill every month, so we decided to hone in on that because it presented the biggest opportunity.”
The team pivoted and came up with a way to reduce the company’s HVAC impact by controlling office heating and cooling during off-peak hours. Based on their research, they estimated with an $8,000 up-front investment, their project could save $2.3 million in electricity over 15 years.
The environmental impact was projected to be even greater, with predicted emissions savings equal to the amount of CO2 it would take 40,000 trees to remove from our atmosphere every year. And that’s in alignment with Koch’s sustainability vision of creating long-term value for society by using resources more efficiently.
The overall winning innovation came from a group of interns working at one of Flint Hills Resources’ ethanol production facilities that discovered a safer, more efficient way to clean the company’s evaporators using robotics. Their idea was so strong, in fact, the group’s investor recommended buying the robotics for each of the company’s ethanol plants.
“It was one of those win-win-win kind of things,” added Woodward.
While big ideas with compelling numbers have stood out in years past, some of the simplest ideas have been the strongest and easiest to execute. In a previous competition, one group of interns pitched the idea of distributing Georgia-Pacific-produced hand sanitizer dispensers around Koch offices to help reduce sick days. Now, they’re strategically placed in high-traffic areas throughout the company.
That’s really what the competition is all about – regardless of the size of the innovation or the value it creates, it all comes back around to providing interns with a platform to develop and pitch ideas that can have a lasting impact.
“Not only is it a learning opportunity for our interns and a way for our company to create more value … it’s a chance to embrace the innovation mindset,” said Woodward. “One of our goals is to have our internship program mimic being a full-time employee. What better way to achieve this than by helping them bring their ideas to life?”
Interested in an internship? Check out KochCollegeRecruiting.com for more information and application details.
Suggested reading: Innovation Challenge diversifying students’ skill sets