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Lessons on innovation from DuPont’s Thomas Connelly

Thomas M. Connelly Jr. is DuPont’s chief innovation officer and a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers‘ board of directors. SmartBrief’s Ben Whitford recently spoke with Connelly about what it takes to foster a culture of innovation for the long haul.

How do you keep innovation fresh in an organization that’s been innovating for so long?

Having a long history of innovation is a great foundation. However, we need to focus not on the accomplishments of the past but on the innovations still to come. It is also important that we look beyond the markets we serve today. Tomorrow’s opportunities are not necessarily where today’s business is, and we need to look forward to areas were we can combine our market insight and foresight with our technology and science leadership to identify the next opportunity.

Emerging markets have been our most consistent source of growth over the past decade. They will continue to be a major factor not only for growth of the company but also the source of our innovations. It is no coincidence that our new innovation centers are in China, India, and Brazil — where the new customers are and where we need to be with our technical resources.

I think you keep things fresh by continuing to challenge the organization to look for the next new thing. When you maintain high standards and keep track of the frontiers of science — where the rate of change for technologies is the greatest — then the opportunities will follow. Our willingness to follow new technologies and project in advance the markets for these technologies keeps things new and interesting.

Is DuPont’s R&D driven by whiz kids in lab coats or by innovation gurus in business suits? To what extent do you buy into the “business-school mentality”?

Innovation has a creative component to it, but it also has a discipline. We have not rejected a business-school mentality — there are important learnings we have taken from this approach. Yes, we listen to technical experts, but we also listen to management consultants and innovation gurus just the same. Each have a valuable perspective on innovations, and we want to capture the best from all sources. I am in regular contact with people in each of those categories.

For me, the key is in the marketplace. It is vital to get an in-depth understanding of the needs and wants of the customer, even if they are unspoken needs. That depth of understanding is what guides our innovation. Without it, our efforts would not be successful.

By its nature, research may be uncertain as to its outcome, but that is all the more reason why we need a very disciplined and structured way to go about it. We have put in place rigorous methods to qualify and quantify opportunities in the marketplace and we use formalized operation processes for staging and launching our products. This means our customers are getting more innovative products, faster, and they work the first time.

DuPont is putting a lot of effort into green chemistry these days. How did that come about?

There are two major factors driving us in the direction of greener chemistry that suggests both a greener way we produce products and creating products that have an intrinsically greener profile. One is our focus on the megatrends. They are rich domains for innovation.

  • Producing more food and more nutritious food.
  • Developing alternatives to fossil fuels.
  • Addressing the growing need for safety and protection for both people and the environment.

Each area is driving us in the direction of greener chemistries. The other is our internal sustainability goals that focus on our own footprint, energy use and market-facing goals tied directly to our business growth strategy. (For more info, see our 2010 Sustainability report.) These goals influence the work we do to lower our own greenhouse-gas emissions, how we set objectives to lower the emissions for our customers and, ultimately, the consumer.

“Green chemistry,” or the demand for upstream ingredients for products that are renewably sourced, is coming directly from our customers, and it required vision on our part. As sustainability has been integrated into our business over the past several decades, DuPont has been able to innovate ahead of customer demand.

How do you expect the shifting regulatory climate to affect DuPont’s innovation programs?

DuPont sees Congress’ effort to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act as a positive step forward. DuPont believes that it is time for thoughtful reform of TSCA. Reform needs to enhance public confidence in the chemicals regulatory system, provide EPA stronger authorities and enable the U.S. to continue its leadership in innovation.

We look forward to working with the Congress, EPA, NGOs and the business community to ensure a robust, science-based regulatory system is in place to determine the safety of chemicals for their intended uses. We want to see this next Congress continue this important work.

How do you ensure that your innovation programs meet customers’ needs?

For DuPont, it is about getting external input very early on in the process. The clear demarcation between success and failure is that early external input. It means testing externally before we try and perfect it and getting it right the first time.

We are constantly working to better collaborate with our customers and get their input early on in the process. In March of last year, we opened a thin-film solar lab in Hong Kong. This facility and four others like it around the world are collaborative facilities, allowing customers to come in and work with our scientists, test materials, innovate and invent new products for the solar industry — directly meeting the needs of customers and cutting down the time to market for new technologies and advancements in the industry.

Another example of where we had to listen to grow our business would be our work with the automotive industry. As standards for miles per gallon continue to be a moving target for car companies, we worked with many car manufacturers and introduced a host of products that help in light weighting of cars. More recently, our collaborations led to the creation of DuPont Energain separators, based on our nanofiber science, for high-performance lithium ion batteries in all types of electric and hybrid vehicles.

Are there any special challenges to managing innovation at such a large company? How do you keep everyone pulling in the same direction?

The way you motivate a world-class research team is to show them the big picture, make sure they know what the overall objective is and provide great clarity for their role in the process. They need to know the targets to hit this month, this quarter, this year, and they can deliver for their business, the company, and, most importantly the customer.

At DuPont, we really do not have internal competition; there is healthy rivalry, mind you, but it is not a competition. We compete with very capable people from other companies, but internally we are all working in the same direction. Our teams are very focused on delivering, and collaboration is a key tool in accelerating results.

Are there any processes or tools you use to encourage people to share ideas?

We have a lot of formal and informal processes to ensure coordination. A formal example is our technology council and technical leadership teams. Both made up of senior leadership, they meet regularly to ensure growth and technology coordination across the company. A less formal example is our annual Technical Conference, or “Tech Con,” as it is known. It is a gathering of over 500 scientists and engineers to promote collaboration across the company. We invite customers, external stakeholders, DuPont scientists and business leaders to share and learn from each other to coordinate information for their businesses.

What makes DuPont a leader in innovation is our broad network of strong core technologies coupled with our ability to selectively combine these technologies to achieve unique solutions to marketplace demands. Scientific breakthroughs over decades resulted in new product brands such as DuPont Kevlar, Tyvek, Teflon and Corian that are recognized throughout the world. These innovations were made possible by uniquely combining our core technologies to deliver new technology platforms and differentiated functionalities that address various market needs. At DuPont, we believe that the biggest advances — the ones with the power to solve the toughest challenges and to transform society — come at the interfaces of technologies. We call this Integrated Science.

Special challenges are usually around focus and making sure teams are not doing too many things at once and allowing for the proper allocation of resources. You can spread even a considerable amount of resources too thin. Maintaining focus is critical, and we look for the most [effective] innovations and make sure we are resourcing those for success.

Finally, what three tips would you offer to anyone trying to foster innovation at their own company?

  • Listen to the marketplace;
  • Understand sources of competitive advantage and capitalize on them;
  • Make the tough decisions that will focus the business and resources from the start.

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