Breakthrough Innovation: Interview with Marcel Frei

The interview was conducted by Darya Bachevskaya from PARK INNOVAARE.

Breakthrough innovation! Many companies from all over the world invest brain power and money to achieve it. During our last session of INNOVATION in PRACTICE, which was dedicated to this ultimate discipline, we asked some of our guests to share their experiences with breakthrough innovation.

Meet Dr. Peter Vischer, Vice President of Global Technology R&D at Medela AG (Baar, ZG), a global player in breastfeeding products and medical vacuum technology; Marcel Frei, Head of R&D at Ampegon AG (Turgi, AG), which designs and delivers high power systems for world-class research facilities; and Mark Naegeli, Executive Vice President at Ferrum AG (Rupperswil, AG), a diversified company with several business units from canning technology to centrifuge technology.

When you start an innovation process, what is the first question you ask yourself?

Peter Vischer: The very first thing we ask ourselves is what opportunities relative to the competition and to our new or existing customers are there? Do we have a chance to get there? Will we be able to change the paradigms in our customers’ heads? As simple as it is, if we don’t know the answer to those questions, no innovation will be possible.

Mark Naegeli: That is true! Finding those answers makes it easier to understand which direction you want to go. It helps us at Ferrum to visualize our goals. Then, and only then, we start developing the strategy, identifying the market, searching for new means.

Marcel Frei: A common understanding of your goals is important. But what also matters for me is the question of with whom I am going to achieve these goals. This is why the very first thing I have to think about is whom shall I involve in the discussions in order to find the most effective but also most promising solution? Which brains and experiences, also from outside of our organization, do I need? After all, two heads are better than one, and a valuable network is very helpful in this respect.

Where do you get your ideas from? And what do you do to improve them?

Marcel Frei: The idea can come from anywhere and anyone. Most ideas appear through discussions with people inside and outside of our organization. We improve them systematically in interviews and brainstorming sessions with people who have a different view of the topic.

Peter Vischer: At Medela, we’ve established a technology scouting process with defined new search fields where we can reach out for cross industry support. Also, we have access to user insights through our internal global design department. Furthermore, we invest in basic research at several universities. There is no shortage of ideas. However, to maintain the sustainability of our business we need to improve the balance of our project portfolio between incremental and radical innovations. For an established company with cash-cow products, this is a real challenge since radical innovation offers more potential but also entails more risk.

Mark Naegeli: Screening for ideas is indeed not an easy process. Some ideas arise out of a company’s strategy, some come up out of need. Often we find new ideas during our sales meetings. But the real challenge is to choose the one single idea that will lead you to success.

What are your preferred ingredients for a true breakthrough innovation?

Mark Naegeli: There are no ingredients for a breakthrough innovation: it is either there or it is not. And there is nothing bad about it. Ferrum AG will turn 100 next year. For many decades there has been no real breakthrough in the industry we serve. We’ve been concentrating on product upgrades and a better use of components, thus evolving as the market has evolved.

Marcel Frei: I believe that breakthrough innovation can happen everywhere if you manage to create a trustful and respectful environment where nobody needs to be shy about sharing even the craziest ideas.

Peter Vischer: In my opinion, breakthrough innovation is very hard to control. There are too many variables that can contribute to it, or stop it. However, there are a few components that can help the process: an experienced innovation team with the right culture and trust; people wanting to change the world, with their beliefs and emotions; top management commitment having the courage to say 5 years in a row, "Yes, we trust you and we’ll invest in your innovations, even if there is a chance you’ll fail"; early adopters who are willing to change their behavior within their peer group to figure out if a breakthrough innovation has a chance in the market.

Do your customers determine your innovation activities, and if so, how?

Marcel Frei: Customers feedback is always very important and of course useful. Especially if we follow open innovation concepts, where the customers know-how about his own process is key to success for an outside-in innovation.

Peter Vischer: Customer satisfaction and feedback is priceless for us. We try to gauge it through market research and, in the future, we’ll try to measure it through access to big data.

Mark Naegeli: I must say that customers do influence the way Ferrum works, just as in any other case. Each customer expects us to provide a tailor-made setup for a machine that perfectly fits their products and goals. And then, there is a constant need to lower the prices. Naturally, to meet those expectations, we have to push our boundaries, innovate our processes, come up with better solutions.

What is of a higher importance for breakthrough innovation: technological excellence of a company or a group of committed people sharing the same vision? And why?

Peter Vischer: I think all of us here agree that it is a group of committed people sharing the same vision. Most breakthrough innovations are long marches – you need a "garage" full of committed people fighting their way through with you.

Marcel Frei: Definitely! Committed people sharing the same spirit are extremely important. They will give themselves to the project, put their soul in it. But let’s not forget that technical excellence will be necessary for the feasibility of your idea.

Mark Naegeli: You can’t argue with it: committed team is your key to success. Not only because they will put everything into the realization of the idea they believe in, but also because it is only in discussion with dedicated team that you start thinking outside the box and everybody pushes each other to a higher level.

Do you believe in breakthrough innovation at all?

Mark Naegeli: Of course I do. It is rare, though, and it would be unrealistic to rely only on it if you want to succeed.

Peter Vischer: I agree. Plus, it is not an easy task to identify those breaking ideas in advance. Between idea generation and market success, there may be a time lag from 10 to 15 years with mainly dead-ends and setbacks.

Marcel Frei: What do you mean, do I believe in breakthrough innovation? I don’t believe in “planned” breakthrough innovations, but I do believe in teams that can lead ideas or visions to a breakthrough. I believe in people being able to realize a breakthrough innovation. But as it was already mentioned, it is rare that we can achieve a breakthrough. Most of the time innovation is the logical consequence of an evolution process with lots of uncertainties and a degree of freedom in many dimensions.

Breakthrough Innovation: Interview with Marcel Frei