An Interview with
Vice President, Research & Development
By Patricia Stamas-Jacoby
Shawn Williams will be presenting a Case History, Proven Ways to Incubate New Business and Product Opportunities, at New Product Innovation & Development 2016: A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, taking place from January 11 - 13, 2016 at the Hilton San Diego Resort and Spa in San Diego, CA.
As a preview, we discussed how one of the oldest companies in America is cultivating continued success via collaborative research and innovation—all the while maintaining their robust product pipeline. Here are some of the highlights of our discussion.
At New Product Innovation & Development, a Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange, you will be speaking about incubating new business. Can you elaborate on how “the incubation model” transpired at Rogers Corporation?
The Rogers Corporation was established in 1832 and today is a global technology leader in specialty engineered materials. Like many companies, Rogers had a large, centralized research and development (R&D) corporate presence. But over time that model has shifted and currently we are more focused on driving excellence in product-line, business-unit driven R&D activities. We are also much more customer-focused.
We realized that we could be doing more “big picture,” next generation technology assessment. So we made a decision to expand our corporate focus and target early stage opportunities and new technologies in new or underdeveloped markets as well as to nurture new business development.
We also realized that we needed to cultivate new skill sets and competencies, and in some cases, acquire new resources help achieve these objectives. Consequently, we set out to explore ways to meet these goals. Like developing strategic partnerships, which, in our opinion was a key way to move this forward, so we actively explored partnering with universities for collaboration, product incubation and development.
Did you engineer the incubation approach out of necessity or design?
In Rogers’ case, it was a matter of external collaboration by design. We purposely sought to shift our focus outward and to seek an outside perspective via a partnership, preferably to put us at the intersection of technology with all the interaction and activity that suggests.
Rogers Criteria for Partnerships:
To that end, we had four very specific factors we focused on when seeking an institutional, collaborative partner. They were:
- They had to be the kind of people, and organization, that we wanted to collaborate with. That is, we wanted them to have a forward-thinking and outward focus, and an approach that complemented our own. They also needed skillsets and interests that were commercially leverage-able by Rogers.
- The physical facility itself was very important. We sought facilities that would allow us to collaborate permanently and in “real time.” We wanted to be able to work in tandem and not isolated or off in a remote, inactive location.
- We sought a partner with an outstanding reputation for innovation and the technology (developing or otherwise) that they could bring to the table.
- We actively sought a partner with an enlightened view of Intellectual Property (IP). Typically the university would conduct much of the research, but we wanted to revisit that model, and we needed to have pre-negotiated rights to commercialize the output of our joint efforts. This was very important in our search.
Is it really possible for a long-established organization to operate as a start-up? Is it desirable?
The Rogers Corporation Innovation Center embodies our original concept as it reconstitutes corporate R&D; it makes our research more agile and outwardly focused. Another important aspect of this partnership is the fact that we pre-negotiated the right for Rogers Corporation to commercialize the technology which was developed in tandem. There is a baseline template that was developed for sponsored research products. To move forward with projects, we only need to iron out work plan details and budget allocation; we are not starting from scratch every time.
A Second Innovation Institute is Created
In addition to the innovation center located at Northeastern University, this September we opened the Rogers Innovation Center in Asia, based in Suzhou, China. This continues our approach of collaborating locally with academic researchers and commercial partners to harness the latest technologies and bring them to our customers. And we believe China has great promise and aspiration in this area.
The goal of the China Innovation Center is to be an early adopter of the U.S. collaboration model. And to date, our Chinese partners have been reasonable about IP and licensing. As well, we see something of a trend with our Chinese counterparts becoming more open to innovation efforts.
Can you share any Rogers’ innovation best practices or observations about innovation?
First, it is very important to have dedicated resources to look at the front end and to be focused on a potential “big opportunity.” There is often an (understandable) inclination for a successful company to choose safer, more incremental product development opportunities, for example, those that support the current business product pipeline. Therefore, it is key to also have personnel and resources without responsibilities around supporting the current business model – they will be more inclined to pursue big ideas and tend to be more receptive to the exploration of new technical approaches to the market.
A second best practice revolves around the transition from corporate early stage product development to a more divisional product development focus and process. This is a key stage that frankly, few companies manage very well. Rogers makes every effort to have people from the business units involved in innovation efforts early on, so they are a part of the innovation and have the chance to ask the hard questions before they take ownership for a given project. And often, if those hard questions are not satisfactorily answered, the project does not move forward. This transition is critical and effective communication is the key.
A third best practice pertains to the mindset behind innovation. The “innovation center” is not intended to be where all the excitement and interesting things happen. Rogers believes in facilitating innovation anywhere within the company, by providing tools, practices and processes that support this. We also have a budget and focused resources for innovation, and facilitating this is the primary role of the Rogers Innovation Center.
Any innovation success stories you care to discuss?
At Rogers, we also consider it a success when a product moves from the innovation center or process to the development stage. We have exceeded our own expectations when we can place a product sample into a customer’s hands at an early stage of a development program.
At this point, we have a few technologies in full product development but none have gone to market as yet. I am confident that when the products in the innovation pipeline come to market, we will achieve significant success.
Any product from Rogers borne of innovation is a product that will add to the company's bottom line. We do not practice innovation simply for innovation’s sake.
A final measure of our innovation success: the fact that less than two years after opening The Rogers Corporation Innovation Center, located in Northeastern University’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, we have opened another innovation center in China. Global innovation, here we come.
Shawn Williams has been the Vice President of Research and Development at Rogers since 2013. In this role, he leads the Rogers Innovation Center, in partnership with Northeastern University, on their Burlington, MA campus. The Innovation Center is focused on the evaluation and assessment Early Stage Development of Technologies with strong Commercial Potential for Rogers’ next generation of commercial development. He has over 20 years of experience in developing and managing materials technology.
Prior to joining Rogers, Shawn briefly worked as the Senior Manager for Advanced Technology at Greene, Tweed, a privately held company in the high performance seals and gaskets that serves the Oilfield, Semi-conductor, and Aerospace Markets. From 2004-2012, Shawn was the VP, R&D at Plextronics, Inc. From 1995-2004, Shawn served in various technical and operational roles at the global specialty chemical provider, W. R. Grace & Co.
Dr. Williams holds a B.S. in Chemistry from Geneva College and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University.