Free rein for innovative spirit

Taking off with innovations

Start-ups are a hotbed of innovation: Their willingness to take risks, creativity and flexible structures facilitate the development of groundbreaking products and technology. This makes start-ups especially interesting for established companies. “It is impossible and unnecessary for us to invent everything ourselves. There are also young companies developing interesting technologies,“ says Dirk Nachtigal, Managing Director of BASF Venture Capital. That is why BASF invests in startups that develop technologies with new materials based on chemistry. More and more large companies are putting out feelers into the start-up scene – via equity capital, coaching programs for entrepreneurs or with their own start-ups. This benefits both sides: While one side gets its hands on new technologies, the other one receives capital as well as access to the resources and know-how of a global company, for example, in R&D or marketing.

Creative cell division

The culture at W. L. Gore & Associates sets the company apart. It avoids nearly all the typical trappings: Instead of hierarchies and job titles, Gore’s employees – known as “associates“ – communicate directly with each other in a flat organization. The model encourages experimentation and is based on intrinsic motivation rather than duties. Everybody takes on responsibility and can allocate up to 10% of his or her working time to developing their own business ideas, initiating projects and getting colleagues on board to help with them. The firm operates on the “waterline“ principle: Everyone at Gore must consult with other associates before taking any action that could cause damage to the company’s success or its image. Gore thus achieves a steady stream of new product innovations, ranging from breathable GORE-TEX® membranes for clothing, to power plant filter hoses and medical implants. In order to maintain a structure that promotes innovation as the company expands, Gore splits teams that have grown to around 200 associates into smaller units – just like cells divide in a living organism.

Unleash the creativity of the “global brain“

No one has all the answers, but together we might just get there – this is the defining thought behind General Electric’s (GE) Open Innovation Manifesto. The U.S. technology company has innovation in its DNA. From its founder Thomas Edison onward, the company has always been imbued with a spirit of experimentation. With the publication of its Manifesto in 2014, it declared a fundamental shift in the way it does business: embracing open collaboration to address customer needs more effectively. Like a market of ideas GE aims to bring needs together with expertise and capacity to create solutions. One key statement of the Manifesto is to build a relationship with the global solver community that is transparent and mutually beneficial. Indeed GE’s commitment is so deep, it sees all innovators, external and internal, as one team – the “global brain” – working together to solve the world’s toughest problems.

A box bursting with ideas

A red box is turning Adobe employees into innovators. Participants in a two-day innovation workshop receive a Kickbox, which contains methods that help them develop ideas as well as a prepaid credit card providing a development capital of $1,000. The employees can use up to 40% of their working time to advance their own innovation projects. Adobe is trying to motivate as many employees as possible because the more ideas are pursued, the likelier it is that something new and promising will result. The red boxes, which were first distributed in 2013, have already helped more than 1,000 employees develop their ideas. So far, 23 innovators have received a blue box, which awards additional resources to those employees with marketable ideas. The platform Creative Cloud Libraries, for example, has its roots in the Kickbox.

Researchers in profile

Inspired by nature

Nature provided Swiss engineer George de Mestral with the inspiration for his innovation. While hiking with his dogs, he noticed that burdock burrs clung to their fur. This piqued his curiosity. Taking a closer look under a microscope, de Mestral found that although the bracts of the burrs seemed to be straight, they actually had tiny, elastic hooks on their tips. The tips do not break off when you attempt to pluck the burrs from fur. It took de Mestral many years until he was able to mechanically produce a similar “hook and loop“ fastener. He filed for a patent in 1951 and introduced the first fastener of this kind (often known by the brand name VELCRO®) on the market in 1959. It was made up of two nylon strips, with hooks on one strip and around 15 times as many loops on the other strip. Until today, this practical idea is used to hold many things together – everything from shoes to baby diapers and even the spacesuits worn by astronauts.

Reaching the goal in record time

Nobody expected to find a solution so fast. It took just six months for an in-house team of researchers to successfully develop the resin coating for BASF’s Palusol® fire-protection panels. The scientists were able to draw on their experience and intuition to find six appropriate test materials. Thanks to close cooperation with production staff, the R&D proceeded quickly. “The new epoxy resin flows better and is less permeable. It protects the panels from external influences and serves as a barrier for moisture and CO2,” explains Dr. Miran Yu, head of the research team. In the case of fire, this is essential to enable the panels to expand under the effect of foaming pressure caused by the heat and thus slow the spread of fire and smoke. The first panels with the newly developed epoxy resin should be launched on the market by mid-2016 at the latest.

A winning formula to fight fungi

Fungal infestations damage crops worldwide and can reduce yields by as much as 30%. To develop solutions for the affected farmers, a BASF team started a research project in 2001 to find a new fungicidal active ingredient with the following features: offering broad protection against a wide variety of fungi in numerous crops, long-term effect and environmental compatibility. After synthesizing more than 1,100 substances, the team led by Dr. Markus Gewehr first synthesized Xemium® in 2004. “We were confident we would find a solution and thanks to our focused approach we were able to discover an outstanding active ingredient,” says Gewehr, reflecting on the team’s success. In the following years, a project team of around 30 researchers, engineers and marketing colleagues worked closely together to launch the active ingredient on the market in record time in 2011. Today, Xemium® protects more than 100 crops around the world against fungal infection.

Clever coding

We come across Masahiro Hara’s invention every day: The QR code is used on packaging, in advertising and for mobile ticketing. In the early 1990s, while working for the Japanese automotive supplier Denso, Hara was actually looking for a replacement for the conventional barcode which could contain more information. He tested various two-dimensional codes, but these were unsuccessful because the scanner took too long to read the data. The clear structure of a helicopter landing pad on top of a high-rise building finally put him on the right track: He realized a new code would also need a distinctive geometric pattern to serve as orientation for the code reader. This idea resulted in the squares in three of the four corners of a QR code. The black and white pattern can contain a total of 7,089 numbers, 2,953 letters or 1,817 Japanese characters. Denso obtained a patent for the QR code in 1995, but has made it available worldwide. The company started a new business segment supplying QR scanners. Hara received the 2014 European Inventor Award for his discovery.

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