C-Suite Execs Discuss Innovation at Fairleigh Dickinson Summit

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“Innovate, or you disappear,” Hans Engel, CEO and chairman of BASF, the Florham Park-based global chemical company, told an audience of more than 200 at the Fairleigh Dickinson University 2012 Innovation Summit in Madison on Oct. 4, 2012. Innovation is a core component for his company, he said.

Asked by an audience member how a multibillion dollar firm like BASF “bakes” innovation and sustainability into its makeup, Engel replied that one of the company’s core principles is “We innovate to make our customers more successful,” changed from the former “We make our customers more successful.”

Engel added, “We do a lot of work on internal branding.”

He pointed out that every company investment in a new technology has to be evaluated by a committee. While the economics of a project is most important, the committee also looks at innovation and how the project fits into BASF’s sustainability goals.

When the company made the change, asking those submitting proposals to include innovation and sustainability defenses, a few projects were rejected because their champions hadn’t thought them through. “We sent them back to do their homework,” reinforcing the company’s commitment to these goals, Engel said.

Honeywell (Morristown), another N.J.-based global company with a strong technical and chemical tradition, tries to link innovation to sustainability, said Ian Shankland, vice president and CTO of performance materials and technologies.

Shankland provided several examples of innovative Honeywell products that do that. One, an asphalt additive, boosts asphalt’s performance without increasing blending, mixing or placement temperatures. The additive is dispersed in the asphalt at low temperatures and using low energy, eliminating the need for mills and high-temperature mixing.

Shankland noted that fostering innovation in tech organizations requires putting scientists from different fields in the same room as marketers. It can’t be just a bunch of chemists in the room; the marketers are essential, he said. However, he commented, “you can’t schedule innovation.” Time is needed for new ideas to develop.

In response to a question about challenges for innovation, Shankland said Honeywell, with its many R&D labs across the world, has trouble integrating people into its multicultural organization.

Corporate culture is important to sustaining innovation, Shankland noted, and maintaining an overall corporate culture can be a challenge. Sometimes, for example, excellent research scientists from countries where there is high degree of respect for authority won’t speak up, hindering innovation. Honeywell invests a great deal in education to try to bridge these gaps, he said.

Shankland also discussed Honeywell’s commitment to STEM education in the U.S. He said, “This country has significant issues with STEM,” which he considers essential to maintaining an innovative workforce. Honeywell has developed many outreach projects to try to enhance education in this area.

Monty Alger, CTO and vice president of Air Products and Chemicals (Allentown, Pa.), also spoke about innovation. “We’ve learned that starting projects the right way [to foster innovation] is important,” he said, to get innovative applications for products underway. For example, innovation takes less time when linked to a marketplace need, yet most company procedures prevent scientists and researchers from talking to customers, he noted. Scientists are removed from the business end of things.

At Alger’s company they’ve removed this barrier. “Our scientists are happy to have their thoughts connected to opportunity,” he said.

To further encourage innovation, Air Products has studied its workforce. It has found that some employees are good at coming up with ideas and others at getting things done, so the company has made a concerted effort to put both types of people on teams.

The idea people — the creative ones — can be very difficult to handle, Alger said, but you have to “drag them out and listen to them. Make them happy and connect their thoughts to opportunity,” he emphasized

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