Why we must harness the power of horizontal innovation in the formulation sector
Horizontal innovation, the transfer and application of knowledge and technology between sectors to meet a challenge, could present many benefits to companies but may also present challenges. Before discussing the benefits and challenges of horizontal innovation, let us first think about why and how companies collaborate in the first place.
If companies do decide to collaborate with another company or with academia the rationale for collaborating is generally for one of two reasons. Either they want to do something they may already be capable of, but are capacity constrained or need it faster, or they want to achieve something that they are not capable of and so must find someone who can. The business imperatives behind this could be productivity requirements, breakthrough product improvement or tackling long-standing industry challenges.
To unlock the full potential of horizontal innovation, companies first need to understand what their challenges and aims are. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially in formulation science, because it is a complex blend of sciences rather than a single academic discipline and so multiple skills and languages are employed. Between different companies and industries there can be even further language divergence, in fact this language is often so divergent that communicating with other apparently related industries results in confusion or frustration on all sides. This is especially true in the broad formulation sector, meaning that when representatives from different companies discuss the aims and objectives of a collaborative project they often do not recognise when they are saying the same thing.
This is not unique to the formulation industry as problems and challenges are often repeated across different industries. The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TIPS), first published in the 1950s, best describes this1. TIPS is a problem-solving tool that was created from the systematic analysis of patterns of invention in nearly 3m patents, taking over 1,500 person years of research. The Soviet research team that published the findings identified that, not only were problems and solutions repeated across industries, but that they could be described by just 40 inventive principles. Therefore, there is a strong likelihood that when a manufacturer encounters a new problem, another company in another field has already solved a similar or analogous problem. This is a key benefit of collaboration: companies can access solutions that already exist, but outside their field, and reapply these solutions to address their particular issue quickly.
Recently, big industry players in the formulation sector have begun to recognise the barriers that exist between them due to the use of different ‘languages’, the sector-specific terminology used by different industries. By seeing past these barriers and learning to talk each other’s languages, for example through using translators at independent technology innovations centres, such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, companies can more effectively collaborate to share the risk that is associated with any learning programme. In general these collaborations are focussed around three key themes; predictive design for faster innovation, radical effects for bigger innovation and manufacturability to process and cost innovation.
Formulations are traditionally managed by a combination of industrial experience, technical mastery and scientific acumen, however if things change, for example personnel, raw materials or even the weather, then keeping these formulations working as intended can be a challenge. Predictive design addresses this by creating models that more quickly guide decisions to the right set of process conditions or actives required to continue making a formulation with the desired properties. Use of effective models can massively reduce the cost of research and development, limiting the necessary analysis to confirmatory tests. This would also save time and allow personnel to do other research or more advanced analyses.
Predictive design of formulation is a current key area benefiting from horizontal innovation across industries; by collaborating, companies may be able to generate better data (greater data quality and data density) often using high-throughput formulation and testing technology that may create more reliable models that could be formulation agnostic so more broadly applicable. For example, by developing a high-throughput experiment that analyses the behaviour of a liquid that is proxy to a detergent, a shampoo, an oil and a lubricant and maybe even a chocolate, then all of these industries can gather useful data and all learn at the same time. The mantra of this innovation theme is to help companies to ‘learn small, learn fast, and learn thoroughly’. Research and development is expensive as it requires many tests, consumes lots of materials and generates a lot of waste, therefore companies need to be smart about where it is possible to save time and money. Investing in resources now to create useful models, which can enable predictive design, is key to such smarter approaches.
The second major theme of horizontal innovation is identifying and understanding radical effects to enable bigger product innovations. This is essentially the opposite of predictive design. Predictive design involves using modelling to optimise quickly on a foreseen solution, whereas radical effects are entirely unexpected results from an unforeseen synergistic effect that could create a product which might revolutionise an industry. Whilst these radical effects can be hugely attractive targets for R&D, finding them can be very labour intensive, requiring broad screens to be performed rather than the traditional optimisation focussed search.
Horizontal innovation can be very powerful for identifying possible radical effects if companies can construct broad-based learning programmes from pooled resources. For example, one company manufacturing shampoo and another manufacturing paint may both be struggling to stabilise new formulations and by collaborating they might discover that a combination of their historical stabilising approaches could create novel solutions. This synergistic effect is a crucial element of inventive problem solving and was one of the key findings from TIPS. The study identified that “innovations use scientific effects from outside the field where they were developed”. Therefore to identify these radical effects, companies need to collaborate and research at the interfaces of one industry or scientific discipline and another. Innovation happens at interfaces.
Finally, the third common challenge area addressed by horizontal innovation is manufacturability. Once an innovative product or solution has been identified, ideally you want to manufacture it in an existing factory without requiring additional capital investment. However, if an existing process has been designed around making a particular product in a particular way, it is unlikely to be suitable, and changing the configuration introduces cost and risk. Collaborating could help if simple modifications can be identified by learning from others making different products but via analogous methods.
Additionally step-change improvement in the manufacturing process could likely be achieved by improving understanding of what is happening to the formulation inside the factory during the manufacturing process. This can be more difficult in industry than one might think, because mixtures are not made in small, laboratory glassware but in huge stainless steel reactors. Also many formulations are opaque, meaning that it is not possible to physically see what is changing in the mixture. To overcome this, collaborations between companies and academia in similar or analogous areas could identify new sensors and ways to monitor the key features of a mixture. For example, sensors, metrology or spectroscopic techniques used to identify particle size decrease in paint could be used to measure particle size growth during drug product crystallisation. When manufacturers can understand what is going on during every stage of production, they can have complete process control and can reliably recreate any formulation, driving process and cost innovation.
Whilst collaborating to achieve predictive design, understand radical effects and ensure manufacturability are great aims for all companies and academics in the broad formulation industry, there are also a number of challenges to overcome. I have already highlighted the language barrier that exists between industries and indeed academia, which is an important hurdle to effective horizontal innovation. Overcoming this barrier, however, is an amazing opportunity for the formulation industry because collaborating across diverse sectors is likely to be where the most impactful innovations are to be found.
Related to the language barriers are the tensions created by the sometimes misaligned motivations and expectations of industry and academic partners when collaborating. It is important that all parties have a mutual understanding of the real purpose and timelines of a project for the collaboration to be a success. Some partners may be happy to dedicate years to a project, whereas other organisations might have a more pressing need to find an implementable solution. It is therefore important that these criteria are identified and understood by all partners very early on, because expectations can be very different. A tension can sometimes exist between partners if one’s desire is to find interesting and unique avenues of research and another needs applicable and functional results quickly, whether new or not.
Most, if not all, of the challenges of horizontal innovation could be solved by honest, clear and up-front communication. Achieving this, by ensuring that everybody is clear on what is required and by when, is simply disciplined project management. This is where innovation centres, such as the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) can be very useful. Often both industry and academia are excited by the challenge and the opportunity of collaboration, however neither may have the time or perhaps capacity to take full responsibility for managing the project. CPI, and other similar organisations, can exist in the neutral ground between the collaborators and support driving the project forward. With an impartial third party taking on this role we can respect the needs of both industry and academic partners whilst ensuring that both sides deliver the desired contributions and impact.
Once you have developed a strategy to overcome the challenges and create an environment in which horizontal innovation can provide cost-effective and efficient solutions, anything is possible. Taking advantage of the combined knowledge and expertise of multiple sectors could lead to bigger, better, cheaper new products being innovated and long-standing industry problems solved. In addition to individual company benefits, the formulation sector as a whole will be able to learn faster, contributing to a more productive and ultimately stronger economy. That is the power of collaboration, and best of all it is possible today.
Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.