ILab, the ‘fifth-column’ of innovation at Air Liquide, with Gregory Olocco

IMG_8513Gregory Olocco heads the iLab, Air Liquide ‘lethal weapon’ for breakthrough innovation. ‘Create value by accelerating the pace of innovation’ is its mantra. He kindly took me into a tour to discover his bright Lab, and its sharp activities.

What for?

ILab has two main missions:

  • Identifying disruptive innovations, representing threats or opportunities on core business, that challenge the ‘operational excellence’ mould; and then, refining market positioning accordingly, discussing strategic scenarios with business units;
  • Detecting opportunities for new business, outside of mainstream activities, ‘the third horizon of innovation‘, involving completely new product/service and/or revisited business model.

3horizons model Air Liquide currently handles four businesses: iLab is acting boldly to unearth a fifth line of business. That’s the reason I named it the ‘fifth column of innovation’!


Intuition started in 2012 with Olivier Delabroy, VP R&D, who had the vision of a dedicated structure to accelerate innovation.

It would figure out how to:

  • switch from operational excellence to diruptive innovation, modifying the attributes of the value proposition;
  • facilitate adoption of innovation by Air Liquide countries: most often, countries don’t realize the implications of innovation on their industrial logistics, the desorganization it creates, and when they eventually do, they stop the process.

This intuition crystallized during a trip in the US, where Air Liquide visitors were shaked by the vivid Clean Tech culture.

Clean Tech


Gregory structured the iLab with 3 throrough principles in mind:

  1. People;
  2. An Open Place;
  3. Methodologies.
1 People

It’s a team of 15 people, at parity in term of gender, and balancing  internal mobility with external recruiting.

Gregory looked for a plurality of skills: social science, design, technology, chemistry, physics. Gregory himself comes from scientific education (PhD in Applied Mathematics), complemented with a MBA. The team holds undoubtedly scientific credibility, an important asset at Air Liquide. There are 6 engineers, often MBA graduates as well.


iLab team is blended with various experience profiles, from recognized scientist to entrepreneurship background, from country and regional managers, with track record in the field, to atypical careers.

8 nationalities are represented. Age pyramid goes from 22 to 55, and the average is around 33.

To make the transplant successful, the magic formula relies on one word: diversity.

2. An Open Place

Gregory picked up a location in the center of Paris, in the heart of the city hectic activity, and not far from the various tech hubs, incubators and accelerators, which scatter throughout Paris.

iLab logo

ILab is open to external visitors, and meeting with other companies, fostering an informal  inter-company network for innovation.

3. Methodologies

ILab mobilizes two main innovation tools:  a ‘Think-Tank’, to explore and give directions, and a ‘Corporate Garage’, to nurture, test and experiment, and prove by mean of demonstration: ‘proof of concept’.

The goal of the Think Tank is to ‘leapfrog’ Air Liquide to new territories, that Gregory calls ‘Transformative Domains’. Mapping major social trends and  transformations (global warming, transformative digitalization, urbanization, demographic growth, renewal of resources, sustainable development), instilling external point of views and lectures, crossing with Air Liquide DNA and legitimacy, to extract transformative domains that will feed the next Air Liquide business unit.

Here we are ‘talking moonshots’, like Larry Page encourages Google [X] to do.

One topic might well relate to the difficulty in breathing in the city. It’s both a major concern in many urban areas, and a playground where Air Liquide can bring its competencies in air care, health care, and pulmonary domain.


Maturation and development process in transformative domain is a 24 months timeline.

Another axe of investigation stays in the opportunity of digital data that can be collected and processed, to further enrich our lives.

ILab is not only about thinking, it’s about proving concept by material demonstration. The Corporate Garage uses tools such as 3D printers and scanners, laser cutting, and digital modeling, and turns ideas into apps, and proof of concept, to assess quickly and roughfly technical feasibility and economic viability. The Corporate Garage is connected to Fab Lab network within Air Liquide and outside.

Thus, ILab works on both short-term and long-term issues.

Corporate Garage iLab

Beyond that, open innovation, scouting, collaboration with start-ups (iLab shares space with ALIAD, Air Liquide’s strategic venture capital investor), frugal innovation, creative tension, are other activities where iLab is involved.

Lessons learned

To conclude, Gregory shared a handful of precious tips from the first 6 months of life of the iLab:

  • Creating value by accelerating is linked to rapid prototyping capability, and to open innovation, which brings up quickly  ideas and partners skills;
  • Helping BUs to accept disruption threats and opportunities is about managing change: one has to capture the needs, understand their path, build trust, and sometimes generate fear by assessing the risks on the viability of their busines, like disintermediation risk: ‘the world is moving: you may die, or seize the opportunity’;
  • Shifting the question can help reach a new product, an ‘unknown object‘, like a bottle with a screen!
  • Monitoring the time and form of involvement in the innovation process with the BU is tricky: do we have to stay until a pilot is completed, with a formal buy-in? do we act as coach to support them in adopting the changes deriving from disruption?


At this point, it reminded me a quote of Jeff Bezos, in time of uncertain decision-making, when data doesn’t prove the case: ‘Let’s be simpleminded. We know this is a feature that’s good for customers. Let’s do it’.

Bezos is driven by the belief that what’s good for the customer will turn out in the company’s interest. It’s not a bad idea, isn’it?

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