As someone with a particular interest in building tough, resilient
brands of the future, I’m always curious how big companies keep their innovation, well, innovative.
After all, innovation tends to thrive in open, collaborative
environments where failure is welcomed and old ideas can be jettisoned. This is not the environment that you usually find in your typical multinational.
Volker Schaedler is head of innovation and technology for BASF North America, the U.S. division of the largest company in the world. He will be giving the keynote at the Sustainable Brands conference this year. What could the chemistry giant possibly have to say about innovation and sustainability?
Turns out, the chemistry Schaedler wants to talk about is not of the molecular sort.
Schaedler is a chemist who never lost his passion. "I still love the new, unexpected results that can come from blending two seemingly ordinary elements together. It’s what makes chemistry magic."
But he is quick to point out the time of just creating new molecules had passed at BASF. Instead, the company’s focus has shifted to integrating their molecules into smart solutions and bigger systems.
For instance, BASF and Daimler partnered on the Smart Car "Smart forvision" project that led to—among other things—heat-reflecting paints that reduced the need for air conditioning, transparent solar panel materials for the roof, and all-plastic composite wheels.
Even inside the company, the focus is on creating new partnerships in the form of cross-functional, diverse teams. A far cry from the days of chemists in their lab, and all others outside.
Another key element that fosters innovation is simply focusing on issues that lead to a sustainable future. BASF has organized its innovators around five key "sustainability megatrends": Energy and resources; health and nutrition; construction; transportation; and packaging.
Grouping technologies around these big challenges doesn’t just provide focus, but it fires up the teams working on them—working for the greater good has proven to be extremely motivating.
Schaedler also noted that game-changing innovations were being accelerated through appropriating technology from the outside.
"Make no mistake, we still have massive R&D resources in house. But why would we try to replicate a technology that someone else is willing to share with us?"
Of course, outside partnerships did have their own complications—the sharing of IP, for example. But the benefits of accelerated innovation tended to overshadow these issues.
The way to get accelerated thinking was to put yourself into a situation where chemistry happens. Granted, it may not happen with every experiment. But the results at BASF seem to underscore the upside of sticking with it.