A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a person who’d attended one of our workshops many years ago on how to build innovation management systems with staying power. He had moved from his former company about two years back to assume the role of Vice President of R&D for a much smaller specialty chemicals company. He had a group of about 40 people, and had recently been given the directive to double the size of his group and add a second location. He wanted to talk through how to design the R&D organization now that he had this opportunity.
It was such fun to help him design an organization from the ground up. He was concerned about how to allocate the expertise across the two locations, and how to ensure there was a critical mass of expertise across specific technical areas. He was concerned about how projects would be managed and how the relationships with the Business units would be handled given the additional staff. But the part of the conversation that was the most fun was how, now that his group was growing, he could build in some expertise for longer term research. He knew that, even with the added talent, he would not have enough to span all of the technical areas they’d need to invent their breakthroughs for the future.
Ultimately he decided to incorporate technology scouts who would scan universities, start-ups, and other external sources of discoveries and inventions, and help develop partnerships between them and the R&D group to leverage that technology in ways that suited the company’s future needs. His current mandate is to serve the needs of the company’s business units, but he’s preparing for the future. When the time comes, he’ll be ready to start to build an incubation capability.
I came away with two thoughts: First, R&D isn’t going away, as so many say it is. Discovery doesn’t always happen inside the company’s boundaries, as we know. The open innovation model can work. While large central R&D labs are under threat and have been for many years, smaller and medium sized firms are getting in the game more and more. Scouting is important.
Second, organizational design for R&D affords the opportunity to set up the company’s potential to manage for the short term and the long term at the outset. It’s not the whole story, to be sure, but getting Discovery right is certainly a start.
School has been back in session for about a month now. One of our programs, the Masters in Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship, is all about breakthrough innovation. They learn how to manage projects that are very early stage technologies, with potential to offer real value. They use the Learning Plan, the Technology Translation table, Patent Mapping, and spider diagrams. They develop skills in interviewing scientists about their discoveries to ferret out potential applications that they then pursue, as budding incubation specialists. They trace how emerging technologies are disrupting industries and launching new ones. They start companies, and they learn how established companies manage for breakthrough innovation. They learn the law associated with partnership development and intellectual property management. Needless to say, it’s a cool program.
Even more interesting is the students themselves. They’re our most eclectic bunch. They come from engineering, all walks of science, and even architecture and the digital arts. They see opportunity everywhere. They share a common interest in finding big solutions to big problems. One team is exploring a new business model for salt water batteries as a source of energy storage in emergency conditions. Another is looking at models for carbon capture and re-use. Others are working with faculty in our school of science to explore medical clinics’ interests in a new method they’ve developed to detect which cells in a tumor are most likely to metastasize. Still others are working with RPI’s Lighting Enabled Systems and Applications (LESA) Center to pursue a broad range of applications for a new sensor embedded lighting system. There’s a team working on identifying ethical issues associated with commercializing a sampling of emerging technologies. We’ll be posting their finished cases on this blog.
This year they’ll be traveling to Silicon Valley and to Washington D.C. to understand the cultural and policy angles of our country’s innovation system. Their program director is infusing in them the confidence to go beyond one project, one start-up, one first job, to think about economic and innovation policy. They are up to the task, and it’s great to have their energy, their intellect and their curiosity as part of our Lally community.
This summer we lost our friend and colleague, Professor Lois Peters, who passed away suddenly. Not only was her death a shock, but leaves such a gaping hole. She was a major force behind the Radical Innovation Research Program at RPI, a wonderful professor of innovation, a prodigious intellect, and just plain fun to work with. She was a true partner.
Over the years, Lois and I began hosting a number of visiting faculty and post-docs. She worked with them more closely than I have, but now I have the bittersweet pleasure of taking that up. This year we have hosted scholars from Australia, Denmark, and Japan. Last year, we hosted from Denmark and Australia as well as a Professor from University of Sao Paolo, Brazil, and are making plans for his former student to complete a post-doc with us in the next year. I sat on the Ph.D committee of a student from Canada recently as well.
Everyone is interested in breakthrough innovation. We’re making progress on many issues, and now we have an opportunity to learn about the global differences in our approaches to managing it. Again, it’s time to set up these functions in companies. We have a small but growing supply of educated students, a much better understanding of how to make it happen, and the need to implement what we know.
Lois….you would be so proud.
Hey all, we’ve just made a Facebook page! Follow us there to get updates on this blog, on the Radical Innovation Research Project, TC&E students at Rensselaer, and to join the conversation. We’d love to have you, and invite your friends too!
It’s such great fun teaching students who want to become intrapreneurs, and how to help companies get better at enabling innovators. Most of our students are very early in their careers, and are pummeled with the idea of becoming entrepreneurs as soon as they set foot on campus. So they join our Corporate Entrepreneurship course with no idea of what to expect.
Much of the course is devoted to showing them what doesn’t work. It’s disillusioning for them, for sure. But as we go through the different approaches to developing a sustainable capability for breakthrough innovation and corporate renewal that companies have tried over the years, students begin to understand the need for a complete management system whose purpose is to innovate in big and meaningful enough ways to enable corporate renewal. There’s no better way to get them engaged than to have them read about breakthrough innovation and corporate entrepreneurship in the news, interview intrapreneurs or Chief Innovation Officers, and write about it. So, I hope you enjoy this series of posts from students at RPI’s Lally school.
Great move Google…I mean Alphabet! Today’s NY Times reports that Larry Page and Sergey Brin will re-organize their company to separate the new ‘big bets’ from the ongoing operations of search. Calico, Sidewalk, Next and Fiber, will become their own business units, along with GoogleX, the newstreams incubator, and a Finance company. They want to model their approach after GE, Page says, which has obviously grown into new domains through acquisitions as well as organic growth and development to become a global powerhouse over the years. But actually, it’s possible they’re following 3M’s model..a more organic model of new business creation. It all depends on how Page and Brin think about the role of the centralized Corporate functions. GE depends heavily on a strong Corporate Research Function, and strong corporate strategy to guide their decisions for investments. 3M allows a more free flowing ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach. I imagine Google Glasses, driverless cars, and drones, all housed within GoogleX, could become their next new divisions. How will that be decided? And how will the decisions about resource allocations be made between Google and the new fast growth, non revenue generating entities? It’s all good, and what a great next step for this company. While Jordan Rohan, founder of Internet advisory firm Clearmeadow Partners, is quoted in one of the Times’ articles as characterizing the new CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai as being able to handle ‘the day to day and the dreamier aspects of Google,’ this organizational structure allows the same for Page, Brin and the stockholders. Now…who gets to work in the newstreams, and who gets to stay in the mainstream?
Greetings all! It’s been a long, long time. Lois and I have been way busy with the third phase of the Radical Innovation Research program. We have visited 9 companies in 3 countries over the past year and conducted over 150 interviews. Lots to digest about roles and responsibilities for Breakthrough Innovation in large established companies. But enough about us. There’ll be more to follow as we figure out what we’re learning. Right now it’s like drinking from a firehose.
Even more exciting is what’s happening at the Lally School…our school. We have an incredible group of MBA students who are extremely interested in this whole breakthrough innovation/corporate entrepreneurship thing. They are an inspiring bunch. Some of them have asked about why this blog has stalled,…and have offered to help. So I’d like to introduce one of them, Peter Roberts from Utah. See below some thoughts on the Tesla Electric Vehicle. Let us know what you think.
The Tesla/New York Times spat this February overshadowed a great achievement in innovation. Some would say that Tesla’s model S is a radical innovation; however, they would be wrong, Thomas Parker invented the electric car in 1884. The real radical innovation from Tesla was accomplished was with the refueling stations. Tesla has already made inroads on the west coast as seen in this map. Tesla has been working to this implemented since 2011. By focusing on changing current infrastructure, Tesla is setting themselves up for success. They now aim to expand electric car potential from their lone pair of charging stations in NY and DC throughout the east coast.
In a broader sense, Tesla has opened up several possibilities for the future. By controlling both the vehicles and the charging stations, Tesla can work out pricing strategies with electricity and/or vehicles. Tesla is creating a whole new market and setting up the infrastructure for this market. The question we should all be asking is, ‘when the rest of the automakers jump on the electric bandwagon will Tesla’s infrastructure make them a dominant player in the marketplace?’.
Others seem to agree with this, see Adam Morath’s blog from 2/14/13 (http://translogic.aolautos.com/2013/02/14/opinion-tesla-versus-new-york-times-debate-misses-the-point/). Still other see adoption of the of the electric car will require an infrastructure revolution See Ben Holland post in January of this year (http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/01/17/how-important-charging-infrastructure-ev-adoption).
So, while electric cars are all the rage, they’re the small part of the picture. It’s the infrastructure that’ll make this happen.