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What If This Works?

| On 17, May 2009

Jack Hipple

In my days as Discovery Research Director at Dow Chemical, I was given a large chunk of money reserved for research and new product projects unrelated to the current business areas. This money was taken from the line R&D budgets of the existing organizations in an attempt to get the organization’s attention to focus on something other than commodity chemicals that showed 1% growth rate as far as the eye could see.


Now this wasn’t the only way that companies tried to stimulate their organizations into doing something different, but it was an interesting and productive one at the time. Now, of course, it wasn’t quite that black and while, but it did set up an interesting dynamic that did in fact force R&D leaders to think about the future and not just the next six months.


This operated like a venture capital fund in that Discovery Research would pay for the research for the first year, 50% the second year, and 33% the last year. At that point there had to be a “home” for the successful product or technology. This didn’t necessarily need to be a normal business unit, but there had to be some kind of reasonable answer which might be licensing or a JV.Researchers with all kinds of interesting new ideas came out of the woodwork and pitched for the funding to pursue their causes which could be funded outside the grasp of their current laboratory director. There would be drawings, process descriptions, chemical mechanisms, etc. which made for fascinating and stimulating discussions which went on for quite a while, followed by a question from me having to do with some understanding of why this project could not be supported by the existing business budget. If this hurdle was passed, then the next key question was this:What if everything you imagine might happen actually works?


Fast forward 3 years from now–you are entirely successful with every technical aspect of your work. Then what? If this question could not be answered with some kind of certainty (this did not have to be endorsement of a business unit, it could be a key piece of licensable technology to others or a generic capability useful across many business units that no particular one was willing to support), they why start the project? What if this works? What will we do? What will we need to do? Do we know how to do it? Can we learn? From whom? Do we need a partner? Who? Do we know who to talk to at this company? Let’s do it in parallel with the technology development and not serially.


Sometimes we get so fascinated by the innovation and creativity journey that we forget what the end of the road looks like. It needs to be a commercially viable concept to someone (not necessarily to the inventor). In this fascination with what is new to us, we also forget to look at parallel universes and approaches, limiting ourselves to what we know. I have written about this previously, but it’s worth harping on again.


There is ALWAYS more than one way to do things or accomplish a goal. If we are not aware of these other approaches, we at least will have the wrong pricing strategy when we go to market with an innovation. The customer could care less about the product or process–they have a FUNCTION to perform. They care about the lowest cost way to achieve this function.Let me be clear–I am not against creativity and innovation. And there are rare incidents like Teflon(R) and Post It Notes(R) where serendipity played a key role, but you don’t want to bet the future on how many of these will come from your R&D staff.


Creativity and innovation are the heart and soul of what I am and what I do. But I have seen millions of dollars wasted (and you have too) on technology and concepts that were not thoroughly thought through. The time and money could have been much more productively spent on the ideas that were thought through, greatly increasing the productivity of R&D.


So the next time, you get excited about the kernel of a novel idea, assume total success in its development (100% yield, etc.) and then ask your self these simple questions–What will we do if it works? What will others do in response? What will be required? Who do we need to talk to? About what? If you are totally clueless about answering these questions, DON”T START until you can, and then spend that same amount of money elsewhere.

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