From Idea to Action: A Case Study in Incubation

lightbulbs that represent ideas

The saddest thing about good ideas is how many go unrealized; and not for lack of thinking but lack of action. A good idea without a plan for nurturing it into the practical is about as useful as a good sandwich dropped in the mud. Some companies seem content losing any number of sandwiches to wet dirt, having no clear plan for what to do with good ideas. But others, like Thornton Tomasetti, have made it a mission to keep all sandwiches, so to speak, on the table. They’ve turned idea incubation into a science—so much so that several of the company’s internal ideas have since been built up and spun off into companies themselves.

As the late economist and Harvard Business Review editor Theodore Levitt once wrote, “All in all, ideation is relatively abundant. It is its implementation that is more scarce.”

Levitt ultimately begs the question: How do you turn a good idea into good business outcomes?

At Thornton Tomasetti, where the corporate mantra for over a decade has been “To be the Global Driver of Change and Innovation,” it meant developing a multifaceted tech strategy including an internal tech incubator with an accelerator, an external fund-to-funds program and a VC platform with other like-minded AEC leaders. All to ensure the firm had a broad and deep awareness of, and impact on, the rapidly evolving world of AEC technology.

The Idea Engine

“The way it works at Thornton Tomasetti is we have a certain flow for idea development,” Grant McCullagh, Managing Director at TTWiiN and Thornton Tomasetti Board member, explained recently at the BuiltWorlds Annual CEO Forum, alluding to the multi-step process through which ideas at the company are captured, evaluated and eventually nurtured.

CORE studio, Thorton Tomassetti’s internal incubator, is the heart of this ecosystem. Over the course of a year, CORE studio develops numerous products to drive productivity and efficiencies in project delivery, helping the firm’s clients worldwide. In addition to CORE studio developing, vetting and generating ideas, CORE lab serves as another feeder of opportunities into CORE studio on a periodic basis.

“Bi-annually, at CORE lab, a diverse group of Thornton Tomasetti engineers, designers and programmers from across the firm have the opportunity to present their ideas for groundbreaking technology to a panel of internal judges who make ‘time awards’ for further development, where ultimately several of these thinktank ideas migrate into CORE studio for future development,” McCullagh said.

Since its founding in 2016, the CORE lab has generated 442 ideas and funded 65 projects.

Since its inception in 2011, CORE studio has designed 10 web applications for Thornton Tomasetti and over 150 plugins, representing innovations in a wide range of fields, from artificial intelligence and machine learning to data collection, visualization, automation and more.

Selected Products Go to Market

But while CORE Studios was established to take good ideas and turn them into market advantages, some ideas are worth more (both in terms of potential revenue as well as industry-wide utility) outside the company. And that’s when an idea may move into the final leg of Thornton Tomasetti’s idea flow: TWiiN, an accelerator program that takes already developed IP and transitions it into a commercial product or company.

“Once a product goes into the accelerator and becomes its own LLC, or whatever its structure, we give equity to the team that helped develop it,” McCullagh explains. “We do that so they’re fully on board to take it through the commercialization process, which can take years.”

The example McCullagh gives of a product that’s gone through that process and into company-hood is T2D2.

T2D2 and Lessons from its CEO

“About five years ago,” McCullagh shared, “the leader of our AI team, Badri Hiriyur, had the idea to gather internal building envelope inspection photographs into a massive database of damaged structures assembled over multiple decades. Ultimately this resulted in over three terabytes of imagery that was then fed to a machine learning model to identify and classify damage in exteriors in a wide variety of materials—brick, stone, concrete, stucco, metal, and so on.”

In CORE studios that idea was developed into T2D2, which was ultimately determined—either by industry utility or commercial viability—to be destined for the external market.

“T2D2 is really a great story,” says Jonathan Ehrlich, who was brought onto the project as COO in 2021 to lead its push into the wider market. “The technology has so many great applications throughout the AEC industry.”

Thornton Tomasetti spinoff tech company T2D2 imaging software
According to Ehrlich, now CEO, “T2D2 knows when it sees a crack or a change in previously detected damage. The detected damage conditions can be geolocated on structures using CAD, BIM or photogrammetric 3D models and presented in digital assessment reports that get updated in real-time. The system continues to improve and refine its findings over time, as it ‘learns’ the specifics of each asset/structure.” | Image: Thornton Tomasetti

Ehrlich recalls when T2D2 first made the transition from product to company.

Ehrlich didn’t come from within Thornton Tomasetti. He began his career building large highway bridge and tunnel projects for the state of New York, overseeing much of the financial and construction oversight.

“I learned that technology was a really important part of this industry,” he explains. “I went on to be an early employee at a company called Butterfly MX, a multifamily tenant access control and property management software company.”


Butterfly MX taught Ehrlich a lot about the startup world, as he helped the company through a number of investment rounds and to widespread commercial success. He says that experience gave him some of the tools required to bring not just T2D2 to market, but to understand how to capitalize on good ideas in general.

“One of the most important things that a company that wants to incubate technology ideas needs to do is listen,” he says. “We don’t do enough listening.”

Finding Problems

It’s great when someone has a good idea, Ehrlich admits, but adds, “it’s even better when they come to you with a big problem.”

All great technologies solve a problem. But first you have to understand that problem.

“That is especially true in corporate technology incubation—you have to dig down and really understand what that problem is,” he explains. “And to do that, you have to go to who your user group is (or would be) and explore the problem more in depth.”

Once you have that problem figured out, then you implement a solution. While the T2D2 incubation stage in CORE studio scratched the surface and unearthed both a problem and a solution, much more listening was to be done to achieve more widespread commercial adoption.

The Unique Benefit of Corporate Incubation

“Corporations are ideal for tech incubation for so many reasons,” Ehrlich says. “It’s where you can find your problem, talk to users, test solutions, and they have the potential to give you certain kinds of resources.”

While now separate from Thornton Tomasetti—which does maintain a small minority stake in the company—T2D2 continues to take advantage of its partnership with the firm, as do many of the companies spun out from the TTWiiN program.

“Thornton Tomasetti has the ability to leverage over 50 years of training data,” explains Ehrlich, referencing the advantages T2D2 is able to create by association. “Organizations have resources, and those resources are opportunities to leverage.”

Those opportunities may be the experience of the corporation’s leaders, or feedback from users, or, in more dire situations, capital.

Of course, as Ehrlich is quick to point out, that isn’t always a guarantee. As an independent entity, T2D2 can’t rely too heavily on Thornton Tomasetti—nor should any spun off company. Because, if you develop a good idea right, turn the concept into a true innovation, you should be strong enough to stand on your own.

“If you did it the right way, the marketplace gives you a problem and you have a solution to solve it,” he says. The great thing about a corporation is that you can identify that problem and the solution internally. “If you’re solving your own problems, you’ll be able to solve other people’s problems.”