It’s full steam ahead for AkzoNobel’s incubator

By Menno van der Zalm, Director Innovation

In my opinion, innovation is a very misused word these days. You may wonder if it still means anything. The business of true innovation isn’t just throwing around buzz words and fiddling about with prototypes. It’s about delivering value through creating new products and services for existing and new customers! 

Innovating relies on discipline and perseverance. Creativity is just a small part of innovation success. My CEO Thierry Vanlancker refers to me as the person with the nicest job at AkzoNobel. He might be right, because despite the hard work, it is exciting and addictive. That’s why I’m so proud to be leading the AkzoNobel Incubator which drives disruptive innovation projects for AkzoNobel.

Is it an innovation or not?

An innovation has two main elements: 1) it’s new, and 2) it creates value for the user and the person or company who brings the innovation to the market. An ‘invention’ is not automatically equal to an innovation. A nice example is the revolving spaghetti fork invented in 1950. It was without a doubt new, and was also granted a US patent. But using it was really impractical and introduced more problems than it was meant to solve. It was a commercial flop. In my book, this was an invention not an innovation.

Innovation in our products and services has always been important for AkzoNobel. We know if we don’t jump on opportunities, someone else will. The drive to innovate is in our DNA. With the increased speed of digital technology development, we do need to step-up our game and get to grips with the disruptive nature of some of these technologies. The Incubator has been tasked to identify and use the power of these disruptive technologies to create new value. We call this ‘transformative innovation’.

Innovating in a large corporation like AkzoNobel can be challenging

It can be difficult to do transformative innovation in the corporate context. The reason is rather simple: a corporate organization is set-up to exploit its existing products and services in existing markets. Transformative innovation is about exploring new technologies, products, services and markets. You could see these as being opposites of each other.

Another complicating factor is the difference between a corporate like AkzoNobel and entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs have an innovation vision, a belief. They try and fail again and again until they reach what they envisioned. People in a corporate, including myself to be honest, tend to expect the innovation process to be linear. We say: “This is the vision, this is the innovation and this is the set, predictable process. Forward, march!” But when it doesn’t go as expected, we stop, declare it a failure and completely abandon the vision. We move on instead of trying to reach the vision in a different way.

As corporations, we can learn a lot from how SMEs and entrepreneurs innovate. That’s why we created the AkzoNobel Incubator, to deal with the uncertainty and risk associated with transformative innovation.

The incubator helps ideas succeed or fail for the right reasons

The AkzoNobel Incubator is a small, fenced-off group of entrepreneurial people exploring technologies and ideas with the purpose of creating value. It’s a diverse team from all the relevant nooks and crannies inside and outside of AkzoNobel. What everyone has in common is a fundamental curiosity and the energy to swim against the current.

The tagline of the incubator is: innovation is not about creativity, it's about discipline. Between the ‘light bulb’ moment and when an idea makes it onto the market, there is an incredible amount of work, failure and perseverance. It’s a complex process full of uncertainty that needs to be handled well. Many ideas fail to reach the finish line because of this, and not because they aren’t ‘good ideas’ with sound visions behind them. The incubator is a structure to support potential innovations progress to success or failure for the right reasons.

An agile approach to explore ideas quickly and cheaply

The AkzoNobel Incubator is focused on ‘unknown’ innovations, where the level of uncertainty and perceived risk is high: will people want to buy it, can we make it and will we make money? An example is DryDoQ Insights, which we expect to launch the beta version of before the end of this year.

We use an agile process, meaning we take small steps and adjust the idea, technology, value proposition and business model based on our continuous learning. As of day one, we went outside and interviewed potential customers to understand their daily jobs better and what problems they face. We continuously explore how to solve these problems and how we ourselves can extract the value. We also actively invited other companies to join this project to get access to capabilities we lack, create better access to the market and de-risk assumptions we make in an accelerated way.

Think big and celebrate achievements!

The AkzoNobel Incubator has set itself a pretty ambitious target being that a substantial part of AkzoNobel’s 2025 turnover comes from innovations that were projects in the incubator or that have been supported by the incubator. Think big! It forces us to stop spending time on things that, in the end, deliver a marginal contribution.

It’s really exciting to be working like this. I haven’t seen our competitors pulling it off at this level… yet. I’m proud of the incubator team and equally so of all the people in the AkzoNobel organization that help us in the various projects we do – often colleagues who are intrinsically motivated and triggered by the vision who are putting in time and effort on top of their regular jobs. The real heroes.

Our next big celebration will be the launch of the first Minimal Viable Product (a first, unrefined version of an innovation) for DryDoQ Insights.