Peek Inside the Applied Minds Innovation Factory

Former Disney Imagineer Bran Ferren and his team solve thorny problems for some of America’s top companies.

This program was produced by the Marketing Department of WIRED and Ars in collaboration with CA Technologies.

Most people don’t know what long-term care insurance is, and those who do know don’t want to talk about what it takes to cover healthcare for people 65 and older who are no longer able to perform the basic functions of daily life.

That’s the challenge insurance company Genworth Financial presented to Bran Ferren in late 2014. Ferren got it immediately; both his mother and his mother-in-law require 24-hour live-in care.

So Ferren and his team at Applied Minds went about figuring out how to get people talking about the need for long-term care insurance. “We’re not saying, ‘Buy insurance’, we’re simply doing something to create a dialogue,” Ferren says.

The result: the R70i Aging Experience, an aging-simulation suit that allows the wearer to experience firsthand the effects of vision and hearing loss, muscle deterioration and arthritis.

Dialogue begun. Empathy stoked. Mission accomplished.

A Company Like No Other

The suit is just one of about 20 projects that Ferren’s technology and design company takes on at any given time. From his newly inhabited, hangar-like base in Burbank, CA, Ferren oversees projects in the pursuit of his prime three criteria: 1) design and technical excellence; 2) making the world a better place; and 3) making more money than they spend.

Years ago, you were in the shoe business or the car business. Now you’re pretty much all in the same business when it comes to the need for software, cybersecurity, all these other things.

— Bran Ferren, Applied Minds co-founder

“I don’t actually know another company that’s like ours”, says Ferren, whose Game of Thrones–style, full, reddish-blond beard signals his visionary stature. “Years ago, you were in the shoe business or the car business. Now you’re pretty much all in the same business when it comes to the need for software, cybersecurity, all these other things. How do you take that industry to the next stage in its growth?” he asks. “We envision what kind of program or building or talent a company will need to compete with Google, Apple, etc. That’s the big challenge for everyone.”

Sony, Intel, Northrop Grumman and every branch of the United States military are among the entities that have come to Applied Minds with questions they were unable to answer. When the aerospace firm Lockheed Martin was struggling to inspire its various divisions to work together, Applied Minds envisioned and built their Center for Innovation in Suffolk, VA. It is now known for its indoor centerpiece, a 64-foot lighthouse signifying that together employees are a beacon for knowledge and communication.

Recently, the Applied Minds team embarked on a full digital redesign of The Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which will make it the world’s first all-digital gallery—art on the walls in digital form, that is, Ferren says, “if they fund it.”

The (Formerly) Smartest People in the Room

A former president of R&D for Walt Disney Imagineering, Ferren takes a unique approach to building his team. “I think of hiring much more as casting. What roles can I fill?” At any given time, those roles may include engineers, designers, military strategists and rocket scientists. “A lot of people I hire are used to being the smartest person in the room, but not here”, says Ferren.

Applied Minds’ culture is laid back, more startup than military, with employees in casual clothes and readily available snacks. But the team must be able to speak with all potential clients, the military included. That’s where Steven Huybrechts comes in. He previously worked as a special advisor to the Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, where he was a client of Ferren’s. Now he is Applied Minds’ chief of staff and vice president of business development. “In working with commercial companies, the government experience helps”, Ferren says. And vice versa.

He is well aware that some people might say working with defense companies flies in the face of his stated aim of “making the world a better place”. But, he says, it’s all in your own interpretation. “Eliminating terrorism makes the world a better place, right?”

There are perhaps other areas of Applied Minds’ work that people might quibble with. For instance, Ferren and his company hold hundreds of patents, one of which figured prominently in the Apple-Samsung “pinch-to-zoom” legal battle. The government invalidated Apple’s claim of proprietary use because of Ferren and former Applied Minds partner Dave Hillis’ patent for multi-touch gestures.

No doubt patent pursuits are behind his “Kiravan” project, which has the dual aims of giving Ferren something non-confidential he can show to journalists and a venture he can share with his seven-year-old daughter, Kira.

Not Your Typical RV Adventure

“When you come down, face the same direction so you don’t fall on your face and die.” That’s Ferren wryly advising this reporter on how to descend from the cockpit of the Kiravan, a 10-foot-high, 31-foot-long recreational vehicle, for lack of a better term. But the term “RV” hardly explains how massive and powerful this machine is. Designed to handle muddy, rock-covered roads and to navigate extreme slopes—the Kiravan sports Kevlar-enforced tires—Ferren takes it on adventures with his daughter.

But recreation isn’t the only goal. Ferren uses the vehicle to research software development for flight instrument displays on glass cockpits, something that comes in handy when he’s working with automobile companies. “It’s never finished”, Ferren explains of the so-far five-year-long project.

The company is similarly always evolving. Ferren founded it in 2000 with Hillis, his Disney colleague, who stepped down from Applied Minds last year. Right now, Ferren is focused on pulling together the new Burbank headquarters, where many of Applied Minds’ clients will have dedicated “innovation labs”.

Clearly, Ferren thrives on surrounding himself with smart, interesting people, an M.O. he sums up in his typically droll tone: “It’s a terrible concept, isn’t it? Well, that’s what we do.”

Ari Karpel
By Ari Karpel | June 09, 2016