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Top tips from award-winning innovators

Successful innovation doesn’t come easy. Here’s some real wisdom from people who know what they’re talking about

By Kathy Brewis . 14 November 2017

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We asked some of this year’s Real Innovation Awards winners for their top tips to help you if you’re at an earlier stage on your innovation journey. If you’re trying to do something new and different and it’s a struggle – welcome to the club. Now let these amazing people and companies bring you fresh inspiration and renewed energy.

1. Challenge your idea upfront, recommends Martha Silcott, CEO of Loopeeze Ltd, inventor of FabLittleBag and joint Judges’ Choice winner of the George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person Award. “Is your innovation makeable or doable? Is it commercial? What is its differentiator? What is its purpose? And don’t just ask your friends and family! It was surprisingly hard to manufacture a little bag with finger loops [FabLittleBag is for women to put used tampons and pads into]. Innovation is a relentless journey. Everything takes three times as long to do and costs twice as much as you imagine at the start. It takes tenacity to succeed – belief, determination, resilience, passion and positivity.”

2. Just go for it. “Have confidence even when you don't know what you are doing,” says Heini Zachariassen, Co-founder of the wine-buying app Vivino and the Judges’ Choice winner of the Best Beats First award. “Don't be afraid to tackle a subject that some might see as outside your purview. When I founded Vivino, I didn't know anything about wine. But you don’t have to be a chef to be successful in food and you don’t have to be a sommelier to be successful in wine. You just need an idea and the ability to start small and think big. When you're attempting to innovate and disrupt an industry, have conviction and constant faith that what you’re doing is a needed change. In the beginning, I was worried about what other people would think. I’ve been humbled by the outpouring of support.”

3. Look beyond yourself, advises Jeffry Weers, Chief Technology Officer at the pharmaceutical development company Respira Therapeutics and Judges’ Choice winner of the Alexander Fleming Serendipity Award. “To be innovative, you must read voraciously. I’m a firm believer in a strong liberal arts education that teaches you how to think, question and solve problems. The most talented and innovative people I know have strong multi-disciplinary backgrounds. Break down those silo walls and allow people from other disciplines to provide insight and fresh perspectives: that is when innovation occurs. Defining the problem is critical. Then you can find the person with the right skill set to solve the problem and advance the innovation forward. There is no easy way. It takes lots of hard work, and the ability to keep moving forward even when things are difficult or seem impossible.”

4. Satisfy your customer. “At the centre of every innovation must be the customer and everything else revolves around that,” says Mithun Sacheti, Co-founder of the jewellery brand CaratLane, which won the People’s Choice vote in the Masters of Reinvention category. “That sounds very simple but we learnt this the hard way. We would often get distracted by things that sounded and looked fancy to us, but were of little relevance to our customers. Collaborate with people who feel for the customer the same way as you do.” Innovation is a continuous journey, he adds. “Every time we innovate to solve a consumer-facing problem, I feel that we can do better and there is scope for even more... it’s never a one-time thing. With a brilliant team, the ability to make good decisions and tons of good luck you can succeed.”

5. Be stubbornly determined. “People said my research was ‘uninteresting and insignificant’ and told me to give up,” says Euglena Co’s Mitsuru Izumo, joint Judges’ Choice winner of the George Bernard Shaw Unreasonable Person award. “But I didn’t let them discourage me. Euglena [a nutrient-rich microalgae] could solve the problem of malnutrition. People thought it would be impossible to grow in an open-air environment but after hundreds of experiments it happened. I thought our business would be a quick success but we did not receive as many orders as we had hoped. Later, a company from which we were receiving capital was hit by a scandal and our business was on the brink of going under. Surviving that, I vowed to make euglena a success no matter what. I am confident my dream of saving the world with euglena will come true.”

6. Build a strong team. “Hire folks who share your commitment to the vision. Your leadership team is the single-biggest determinant for success,” says Ritesh Agarwal, Founder and CEO of the Indian hotel-booking app OYO. His company won both the Judges’ and People’s Choice Awards in the If At First You Don’t Succeed category. “When I look upon OYO’s journey – the quality of talent we have attracted – I am grateful and pleasantly surprised at how far we have come and how soon. All credit for this goes to the commitment of our teams. People often ask me how I dealt with early challenges, the difficulties of funding and scale. Perhaps it was the naiveté of youth, or just being so absorbed with my dream, but I didn’t get perturbed by anything. You have to be really passionate about the problem you’re trying to solve. The ability to stay the course, collaborate and steer diverse stakeholders towards a common cause is important – and there is no substitute for hard work.”

7. Get the timing right, says Michèle Villiger, Solution Manager and Member of the Board at Villiger Entsorgungssysteme, which is the People’s Choice winner in the Harnessing the Winds of Change category. “There’s no use in innovating when the market simply isn’t ready. Invest a lot of time and energy with key customers who will become testers and eventual advocates of your product. This will help you see if the market will even accept your innovation and how you might have to adapt it. It is very tough to make the market believe in your vision as much as you do. You need to create the right promoters, in the right places at the right time to succeed. Villiger essentially invented underground waste collection systems – a really simple idea that has created an entirely new industry. Innovation is a continuous process. You can never hit the market with a single new solution and expect to make a business out of it, it requires constant attention and change.”

8. Focus on quality. “If you’re going to export globally, you may not always be there in person to talk about how great the product is. So you have to concentrate all your time and effort on quality,” says Tim Warrillow, Co-founder of Fever-Tree, which won the Judges’ Choice Harnessing the Winds of Change award. “We saw a very real opportunity in the tonic market. The premium trend was growing, consumers were becoming more and more interested in premium spirits and yet the mixer category had been dominated by one brand for decades. We set about producing the best tasting products we could by travelling the world looking for the best ingredients, like quinine from the Democratic Republic of Congo. We’re proud that we then continued to innovate, for example with our increasingly growing range of dark spirit mixers.”

9. Never stop innovating. “There’s no room for complacency or slowing down,” says Henrik Poulsen, CEO of Ørsted (formerly DONG Energy), which was the Judges’ Choice winner in the Masters of Reinvention category. “Continue to challenge yourself and the status quo.” DONG stood for Danish Oil and Natural Gas, but was moving quickly towards green energy by becoming the world leader in offshore wind. On 2 October the company went further when it announced that it would now concentrate on green energy after having sold its oil and gas business. It even changed its name – to Ørsted, after the innovative 19th-century Danish scientist who discovered electromagnetism. “Curiosity, dedication and interest in nature were some of Hans Christian Ørsted’s many qualities,” says Poulsen. “These are qualities that this company also stands for; traits that are needed to succeed with the green transformation. Changing our name is the beginning of the next stage in our journey to help create a world that runs entirely on green energy.”


Find out more about the 2017 Real Innovation Awards winners here.

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The Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship equips and inspires entrepreneurs, innovators and the leaders who design the ecosystems in which they thrive.

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