Photo provided by Catexel

While spotting opportunity is the springboard for change, focusing on failure can be as much a part of finding the right answer for realising that change. The crux is knowing when to stop investing in ideas – particularly in terms of the mis-deployment of often limited resources.

But it can be difficult to, firstly identify, then translate the most rewarding research routes into commercially viable solutions. Managing the innovation pipeline is all about having the right people, processes and technologies in place to make informed decisions, with speed.

In fact, the faster you can stop ideas that aren’t working, the better. It may seem ruthless, but this way, the more time you have for developing a robust runway of potential. Plus, even if ‘plan A, B, C or even D’ don’t come to fruition, knowledge is gained – ultimately helping projects further down the line.

Embracing an interdisciplinary approach

Input from across the organization is important for fertilizing market-ready ideas and finding focus. Risk assessment is a critical part of R&D strategy and it should involve a range of stakeholders – not just the core research team – to ensure a more objective view. Bridging the gap between technical and commercial departments informs more rounded decisions and helps determine earlier on in the process if a platform has future scope from a scientific and operational perspective.

Graduates also bring new thinking to the fore. Dismissing new entrants on the grounds of inexperience is exceptionally short-sighted. While organizations will seek advice from academia and customers as a matter of course – getting input from the wider team into the decision making process is also vital.

Indeed, fast-track strategies for successful R&D outputs rely on a readiness to involve others and a willingness to put ego aside. Great researchers possess extraordinary intuition from investing time and passion in nurturing their expertise. The most successful R&D managers tap into external networks and collaborations, creating the opportunity to see things differently, which can lead to illuminating revelations and new directions. Looking to parallel industries and even completely unrelated disciplines can help determine a route that was there all along but that research teams were just too close to unravelling the problem to see.

Read-across is a powerful lateral thinking tool and taking inspiration from other sectors can be a shortcut to success. Just as biomimicry celebrates solutions borne from studying nature, there is an art to interrogating other areas and seeing a plausible link – be it a chain reaction, ingenious load-bearing structure or emissions saving technology. Finding and fine-tuning solutions for alternative applications is innovation at its commercial best – resourceful.

Framing innovation from a new perspective

At Catexel, this methodology of building on scientific and commercial success in other areas is known as ‘circular innovation.’ A paper published in MIT Sloan Management Review 1 mirrors a very similar ethos—with a focus on taking a lower-risk, lily pad approach to innovation that applies especially to IP-rich, heavily regulated and capital intensive industries.

The lily pad strategy encourages innovators to explore links between their current capabilities and solutions to the needs of potential users of other applications who are ready to adopt them. The article explores how, by looking beyond what’s in front of you, it is possible to make lateral leaps to achieve disruptive innovation. Their thinking presents an alternative to investing everything into a single ‘moonshot’ application – realising that evolution over revolution is often more realistic in certain sectors.

Where lateral thinking can lead

Successful R&D starts with having an innate curiosity in the field in which you work. Wider reading on topics outside of your expertise, for example, could trigger that ‘lightbulb moment’ – as well as careful observation both inside and outside of your industry.

Without thinking differently about the suite of assets at Catexel’s disposal, we would never have got beyond using bleaching catalysts for detergent and cleaning applications, for example. Laundry led us to explore other opportunities within cellulosic substrates, which led us to develop a low temperature bleaching technology for the textiles industry or for wood pulp bleaching.

Another example of cross over between different applications is the realisation, after reading papers on using catalysts to form chlorine dioxide from chlorite as an alternative way to produce chlorine dioxide, that our catalysts could also be used in situ together with the substrate that needs to be oxidised. The resulting efficiency is much greater than what was described in the publications. This is because after reacting chlorine dioxide with the substrate, chlorite is formed again as a waste product, which can then be regenerated by the catalyst to form chlorine dioxide. Using the catalysts in our library led to the discovery of various classes of iron and manganese catalysts that are very active with chlorite or chlorine dioxide to attain bleaching/degradation of a variety of substrates, including microbes.

Valuable insights gathered from investigating this track have opened up new, much broader opportunities within water treatment. With two new patents to protect our activities in this area - and other anti-microbial applications too – water is about to become a key strategic focus for Catexel.

Similarly, only by spotting a link between the bleaching of tomato-oil stains and the mechanism of alkyd paint drying were we able to answer an ongoing challenge for the coatings industry. Today, we’re working alongside the wider supply chain to devise and optimise so-called ‘disruptive’ technologies to give the sector more options in the face of regulatory reform – a potentially game-changing initiative inspired by spaghetti sauce.  

Being future focused

Being a disruptive innovator means staying ahead of the game by seeing things others simply don’t see. How? By building an effective ecosystem with a team of lateral thinkers at its core. Without investment in R&D, it is impossible to be truly future focused. Tools for scouting technologies are only as good as the quality of the input, and that rests with working with the right people, with the right aptitude, with the right knowledge to find, progress and even quash ideas.

Affecting real change requires an ongoing commitment to R&D that covers both short term and longer term objectives. Clever R&D strategies find a way to feed a pipeline that spans both ends of the spectrum. Working on the basis that it typically takes one-to-two years to implement a so-called “drop-in” solution and anywhere between three-to-five years when reprocessing is the only answer, organizations operating in heavy industry simply can’t afford to take a stop-start approach.

Decision makers that cut R&D spend in the face of wider market challenges are, in effect, writing “the longest suicide note in history” as the late MP Gerald Kaufman aptly put it. Killing ideas is one thing but writing off future innovation is quite another.

1) Finding a lower risk path to high impact innovations – Joseph V.Sinfield & Freddy Solis (published in the Summer 2016 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review magazine)

About the Author:

Ronald Hage, Ph.D., Chief Technology Officer, Catexel, is an expert in oxidation catalysis. With an extensive career in research and development, Hage has achieved industry acclaim for developing breakthrough bleaching technologies based on manganese and iron oxidation catalysis. Initially working with Unilever to identify opportunities in detergent applications, he is now exploring the full scientific and commercial potential of a suite of highly stable, highly active catalysts, exclusive to Catexel. Hage also sits on the editorial advisory board of a number of academic journals, has contributed to 107 peer reviewed articles, and has published 90 patents to-date (24 patents on behalf of Catexel).

Dr. Ronald Hage has partnered with Dr. Steve Bone – the co-founder of technology and innovation management consultancy, nu Angle, and RADMA trustee - to put a spotlight on how good practice approaches to R&D can inform the innovation pipeline and shape more successful research outcomes.

The new video series ,offering peer-to-peer insights from world class technology experts, explores the role people, process and technology play in creating value for forward-thinking corporates. Particularly those seeking competitive edge against a backdrop of regulatory constraints.