Patrick Treado, chief technology officer at ChemImage Corp., knows what it means to be innovative. He founded the 75-employee provider of imaging technologies for chemical and biological applications, the first company of its kind.
Treado has worked to gather the talent, develop the market and produce the innovative technology to build his company during the past 17 years.
“We were the first company that was formed to do this,” Treado says. “The technology we had to create really didn’t exist 20 years ago. The company is now 17 years old, and we’re still working at a research and development level with our technology for medical diagnostics, but along the way, we have had to exploit the technology in many other applications.”
Smart Business spoke to Treado about how he has developed innovations that lead a very specialized market.
Find innovation. I think the invention comes from many places, including some surprising locations. We have a process here at ChemImage where anybody in the company can invent something. Everybody becomes trained in reporting innovation, because if it’s not visible within the organization, then it’s not going to go anywhere.
Good ideas often come just from seeing what others are doing in the community and then adapting our particular approach, so it’s still our own intellectual property or something we can innovate around. You have to listen. If you’re not listening to the ideas that percolate around the organization or within the organization, then they may be right in front of you and they just don’t happen. It’s easy to suppress good ideas. To encourage them, companies need to have incentive programs in place to incentivize their employees to make disclosures, to say, ‘Here’s a good idea, and I want the company to exploit it.’ Recognize people within organizations when a significant technical achievement or innovation turns into a product and that product gets launched.
It often also takes, somewhere in the organization, somebody who’s driving the creation of innovative concepts. Someone like Steve Jobs at Apple is a perfect example. He obviously doesn’t do everything at Apple, but he drives the innovation at that organization. You need a strong leader in that sense.
Make it part of your culture. Every company’s innovation culture is a little bit different. We have processes here to foster innovation, and that kind of doesn’t make sense. How do you have a process that makes people creative? It is kind of a hard thing to do. We want to make sure we capture all the good ideas that could turn into products or future revenue streams. So that means we have product development processes, we have a patent committee that’s responsible for reviewing new intellectual property.
Those are things any company can do at a certain size. It’s the informal stuff that we try to do to track the performance of the company by monitoring on a monthly basis. You have to constantly be watching, monitoring, checking, and when it’s clear that maybe you’re focused on more execution than creation, it’s possible to get a bunch of people in a room and set a goal and create new technologies. You can’t guarantee that what comes out of those brainstorming sessions is any good, but it’s surprising how that process of getting people to think about that allows them to be creative. They might walk out of that room and a week later come back with an idea and say, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ We periodically have brainstorming sessions where we try to invent technologies that are relevant to our business strategy.
Develop a strategy. You have to try to understand and communicate throughout your organization what the goals are. It starts with a business strategy and that flows into your technology and innovation strategy. If you don’t know what it is, it’s hard to communicate that vision.
Executives are much more tactically focused to survive or to thrive on a weekly, monthly, quarterly basis. Strategy is usually looking up more on a yearly or multiyearly basis. It’s hard to find the time, so you have to allocate enough time so you can clearly articulate your business strategy and then try to align your technology and innovation strategy up with whatever that business strategy is.
It could mean you need to go buy new products through acquisition or some type of a merger or partnering activity to bring that innovation in. Don’t limit yourself to organic innovation. Sometimes it’s more effective to bring it in through external relationships. There are organization’s out there that do nothing but invent things and are looking for ways to bring them to market.
Don’t innovate just for the sake of innovating. Every modern company today has a technology strategy whether they know they have it or not. You have to make sure your technology strategy fits with the fundamentals of your business strategy. Innovate to either establish or maintain whatever competitive advantage you have to have to succeed.
HOW TO REACH: ChemImage Corp., (412) 241-7335 or www.chemimage.com