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In today’s hypercompetitive world, breakthrough innovation is more important than ever. At the same time, it remains a challenge for many companies. At PARK INNOVAARE we tackle the problem by discussing best practices and trying out new breakthrough idea generation methods.

It was to this ultimate discipline “breakthrough innovation” that we dedicated our 3rd INNOVATION in PRACTICE workshop. Thirty-five participants ‒ mostly senior executives from the pharma, industrials and energy business, as well as representatives from academia ‒ joined the discussion. The workshop was again led by Andreas Rülke, an innovation expert with extensive international and practical experience.

What is breakthrough innovation?

Rather than just a high impact type of innovation, “breakthrough” in the conceptual sense of the word requires two things: a new product or technology that is achieved by a new process or competence. If these two come together, one has achieved what many strive for. Truly breakthrough innovation examples include the iPhone, which recently opened up the universe of apps changing the life of nearly all mobile phone users, augmented reality (AR) applications like “Pokémon Go”, which just this summer fascinated millions of consumers – or H2 based engine cars, which were the main topic at today’s workshop.

But how to get started? “When we start an innovation process, we ask ourselves what the opportunity relative to competition is and what the opportunity is for our new or existing customers, whether we have a chance to get there, and whether we will be able to change the paradigms in our customers’ heads”, says Dr. Peter Vischer, Vice president of Global Technology R&D at Medela AG after the event. "But we strongly believe in breakthrough innovation!"

Breakthrough innovation in practice

The workshop followed a simple but effective story line (see picture below). First, the individual or team perspective was observed, then the collaboration between companies; lastly, the specific conditions of geographical clusters such as Silicon Valley were analyzed. It was established that a big part of step 1 was creativity and that there were many ways to generate ideas, such as “brain writing”, “reframing the question” or visualisation techniques. “Creativity becomes very intense when you gather people with cross-functional skills and ask them to accomplish something that seems to be impossible”, says Andreas Rülke.

In order to analyze breakthrough innovation using a practical example, two additional speakers from industry and science presented their case. Dr. Philipp Dietrich, CEO at H2 Energy AG, and Professor Thomas Schmidt from the Paul Scherrer Institute each presented the results of their work on H2 solutions to help the future hydrogen-powered energy breakthrough. Commissioned by the second largest Swiss retail chain COOP, H2 Energy is currently building a network of hydrogen fuel stations. This includes the development of the underlying business case, which is in fact fascinating – economically and ecologically: the technology has been mastered, the logistics are under control and there are nice cars (such as the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell) available on the market, yet there is still a long way to go to achieve implementation.

“One per cent inspiration, but 99% perspiration”

This shows that creativity alone is not enough. The execution of an idea requires a lot of technical knowledge and engineering skills. This was the message emerging from the breakout sessions, when this time the audience of +40 was split into groups (pharma, 2 x energy, 2 x industrials) to exchange ideas from their practical experience. Many said breakthrough innovation could be achieved by following a structured path (although surprises may be expected) and that the main factors for achieving it were freedom in thinking as well as listening to the customers’ non-obvious or hidden needs. It was established that, once these were identified, the hard work could start. Or, slightly modifying Thomas A. Edison, we can say that breakthrough innovation requires 1% inspiration but 99% perspiration.