The pace of technology development is faster than ever – and that means innovations that once took years now happen in weeks, not only in the digital world, but in the physical world too. But taking ideas and bringing them to life at a rapid pace is no easy task. It requires ingenuity to overcome bottlenecks, accelerate through challenges and get the right experts collaborating with shared purpose.
Developing life-changing technology at pace is an artform perfected by the end-to-end innovation team at PA. Over the past eight decades, they’ve developed its secret sauce, and its list of magic ingredients begins with defining your purpose, ensuring all those involved are committed rationally and emotionally to a common aspirational goal. The next step is pulling together a multidisciplinary team, not just bringing business consultants to the table, but the people who can challenge conventional thinking – scientists, engineers, designers and market sector specialists. That dream team uses the creative dissonance from diverse perspectives to originate ingenious ideas, accelerate product development and use fast failures to speed up success – while at the same time, always maintaining an end-to-end view, so that the designed solution, business plan and regulatory requirements are all aligned to delight the end user.
What does that look like? It means helping PulPac to bring its sustainable packaging to market in accelerated timescales and meet rising consumer demand; rapidly bringing experts to the table for water treatment startup Water Source; helping create the first major new mode of transport in more than a century for Virgin Hyperloop; supporting Sure Chill with their vaccine refrigeration and cooling technology; and co-ordinating the design and manufacture of thousands of ventilators, sourcing supplies globally amid the pandemic, in unprecedented timescales. Here are the lessons PA has learned from innovating at pace since 1943.
Define your purpose
The first lesson is sharing passion and purpose – look to fast-growing companies such as Patagonia and Whole Foods as examples of what happens when innovation is led by purpose rather than just profit. When PulPac brought its idea for replacing single-use plastics with a wood-pulp alternative to PA, everyone wanted to be involved, because that type of innovation was close to their heart. When Water Source met with the PA team for the first time to discuss its water treatment facility for remote communities, its CEO was so excited to meet others that thought like his own people and shared the same passion.
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PA’s work with the Virgin Hyperloop project was a source of inspiration for all involved. “It was truly a passion project – the amount of impact on the world that this new transportation platform could and will have is life changing,” says design and innovation expert Jim Morgan. “There were plenty of people at PA jumping at the opportunity to be part of this.”
For the Ventilator Challenge, PA had a clear purpose and positive belief that the project was achievable, despite the odds. Last March, chief innovation officer, Frazer Bennett, was in his home office watching the devastating coronavirus news out of Lombardy when the Cabinet Office called saying it needed thousands of ventilators – and fast. Bennett knew the scale of the challenge was unlike anything in recent history – but with hospitals overloaded by COVID-19, it had to be met. “Our business every day is to do things that others say can’t be done,” he says. “That’s what we do for a living.”
Assemble multidisciplinary teams
Shared purpose drives the belief, but having a multidisciplinary team is necessary to get the work done at pace. Because PA has a wide range of experts at hand, it can supply scientists to grasp the underlying principles, manufacturing specialists to design and build equipment, and commercial strategists to devise and deliver the business plan, expand teams and drive forward the pace of innovation. This is the very reason startups join innovation hubs or sign up to accelerators, in order to access necessary expertise outside of their own staff lineup.
When PulPac came to PA, it had at most 20 staff – but major companies were knocking at its door amid the drive to ditch single-use plastics. “We have hundreds of scientists and engineers,” says Philip Fawcus, product design and engineering expert at PA. “We can help bridge any knowledge gaps very quickly in an agile way.” PA could bring an expert to the room immediately. “If they had a manufacturing issue, we have an expert. If there was an issue around coatings, we could find the right person,” he says. PA are now the Global Application Partner to PulPac and are developing applications in partnership with them.
They also helped Virgin Hyperloop with the specialised skills they needed. The skilled staff provided by PA changed throughout that project. At first, PA was helping Virgin Hyperloop with software architecture and engineering, which evolved into total systems integration and the infrastructure to go with it, eventually extending into supporting feasibility studies and the beginning of regulatory work. “Throughout that continuum, their needs from us evolved,” Morgan adds. “We brought some of our foremost experts on transportation, regulation, safety and systems engineering to the table, including supplementing leadership roles to help them accelerate their development timeline.”
Sometimes it helps to have more than one specialist expert in the room so they can act as sparring partners. “In a small organisation, you won’t have three physicists,” says David Rakowski, a sustainability expert at PA, who worked on projects with Water Source, the water treatment startup, and Sure Chill, which is developing a mobile cold storage system for vaccines. “You’ll have one. But who is that physicist able to spar against? They probably want to talk to another physicist.” When supporting end-to-end innovation, PA can pull in an expert not just to solve a specific problem, but to help develop ideas and spark creativity. “It’s about creating a network of people to build and develop their ideas with,” he adds.
Smaller companies may have brilliant, industry changing ideas, but getting major players in manufacturing and distribution to answer their calls can be a challenge. PulPac needed to work with the right manufacturers, but rather than take the time to convince them, PA already had those connections. “The expertise that PA carries in the sustainability space gave PulPac a lot more credibility, that someone was partnering with them who leads in the space,” says Fawcus. “We were able to bring to the table the world’s largest fast-moving consumer goods companies.”
Collaborate via co-creation
When experts from two teams work together on a project, it can be, for example, consumers helping to inspire or even work on new product ideas, as seen with LEGO asking fans for development inspiration or gaming company Bossa Studios with its purchase of GitHub. But co-creation can also happen across companies, such as Tesla opening up its patents for the rest of the automotive industry to make use of, in the hope of driving development in electric cars.
Co-creation was core to helping Water Source with its mission to use the Internet of Things and digital technologies to provide safe, clean drinking water to remote communities. While Water Source had the idea and the drive, it turned to PA for help developing a business model, navigating markets and regulation, and organising partnerships – and the team also helped build the digital platform itself. “PA’s vision, process and co-creation model made them the perfect partner,” says Mark Campbell, CEO of Water Source Australia. “They immediately understood our vision to combine a for-profit enterprise with philanthropy, using advanced technology to empower local communities with access to drinking water when and where they need it.”
For its work with Virgin Hyperloop, PA had a team working directly with the client. “We brought a combined team from the US and UK onsite,” says Morgan. That was necessary to help build trust, but also to offer the full support needed on the project and for the Virgin Hyperloop team. “We worked in concert with their engineers, providing access to the full breadth of PA’s global design and engineering team to advance development,” Morgan says.
With PulPac, PA took it a step further. When the pandemic hit, the teams couldn’t simply rely on virtual meetings, as they were developing a physical product and materials science and production were key challenges. To help keep the project going during the pandemic, the PA team used their Development Centre in Cambridge that had a replication of the setup used by PulPac at its headquarters in Sweden – including a three-tonne machine – at its Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Cambridge UK. “We’ve both got the same development capability, in terms of technology,” Fawcus explains. “So, we were able to develop prototypes at each site, share learnings and challenges, and test any design improvements on both platforms.”
See the bigger business picture
Having such a variety of expertise allows for an end-to-end view on a project, regardless of the industry or idea. Technology innovation is about more than getting a working prototype or a sample to share with investors. Instead, it’s about bringing to market a viable product that can change how industries operate – look at Amazon’s understanding of the e-book reader market as an example. The Amazon Kindle device isn’t the firm’s primary driver of revenue in this space – that’s the sales of the digital books. But the e-reader enables this market, and to support it, Amazon required a system to sell books, manage digital rights to protect sales, and even included free mobile downloads for the first iteration, to encourage book sales.
PA’s experts not only work on product development, says Wil Schoenmakers, global head of consumer and manufacturing at PA, but also consider how a business will scale up and come to market. For Water Source, that meant developing an innovative business model to enable them to create a commercially viable business while supporting aid efforts. Having a holistic view of the entire project isn’t easy when developing an entirely new transportation platform, as is the case with Virgin Hyperloop. “We have to forecast decades into the future to consider the lifecycle of a platform like Hyperloop,” says Morgan.
For PulPac, a holistic view was key because understanding the full cost of production and business case for global manufacturers meant the company could show its sustainable solution wouldn’t cost more than plastic. “That’s really powerful,” says Schoenmakers. “Everybody in the world today believes that going sustainable is going to cost you. Showing otherwise suddenly unlocks everything.”
Fail fast – but make it count
But having an end-to-end view doesn’t mean you’ll follow a perfect path – an experimental mindset is part of development, after all. It’s a tech axiom that the key to innovation at pace is failing fast – it was famously on posters in Facebook’s headquarters – but it’s also important to do it methodically, ticking off what won’t work in order to see what will.
“With Sure Chill, we did hit some technical challenges, but we came up with a list of dozens of things you could do to overcome them,” Rakowski says. “We could have spent a week testing each of those to infinity, but we didn’t – instead, we tried to get through as many as possible in 48 hours. If it looks like it’s not going to work, we go to the next one. That kind of fail-fast methodology works so well.”
In the Ventilator Challenge, PA employed another tactic in its arsenal: concurrent development as an insurance policy, assuming that some of the designs will naturally fail. Out of thousands of offers of help, the team settled on 15 options for ventilators, each with their own design, sourcing and manufacturing teams running in parallel – an insurance system that made sure any failures wouldn’t hold back the wider project. “Any of those designs could have achieved the objectives that we had, so we had 14 insurance policies,” Bennett says. “Because ultimately we knew that failure wasn’t an option.”
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It’s better to make a wrong decision and learn from it than not take action at all, adds Bennett, and that requires not only getting the right people in each meeting to make those decisions, but enabling creative dissonance, an environment where they can disagree. “You have to be in a climate where it’s okay to disagree,” says Bennett. “You have to build an environment where challenge is not only accepted but encouraged.”That was also true for Virgin Hyperloop, where Morgan says PA experts and Virgin Hyperloop engineers challenged each other to optimize the design. “We established a level of trust that allowed us to challenge each other when there was a better path forward,” he says. “You can’t operate in a thought vacuum when challenging convention is the foundation of what Hyperloop represents.”
Repurpose with purpose
Another key lesson for innovation at pace is to repurpose. PulPac needed a new coating to provide different material properties; PA repurposed techniques used previously in the electronics industry.
That was also true for the Ventilator Challenge. One of the ventilator designs was developed by medical devices manufacturer Penlon, which before the pandemic made anesthetic machines – but inside each of those is a ventilator. “They did a cut and shut job on their anesthesia design to create a ventilator,” Bennett says, though of course it’s not as easy as that may sound, with more than 300 people working on that section of the project to refine the design for clinical needs. But using existing products made the job easier to speed up and to secure regulatory approval.
Innovation at pace
Helping Virgin Hyperloop invent a new mode of transport, leading the Ventilator Challenge, bringing PulPac to market, and building both Water Source’s business plan and technology are all projects that come with lessons in how to innovate at pace. “We’ve discovered a new way of working, that’s the legacy we’ve been left with,” says Bennett.
That includes defining your purpose and using that to develop ideas using co-creation, even if it requires building your own three-tonne machine. But that also requires a multidisciplinary team, be that finding just the right materials scientist or putting two physicists in the room and leaving them to challenge their own ideas and assumptions. Innovators need to consider their projects holistically, use failures to tick off their to-do list, and repurpose rather than build from scratch. “On the Ventilator Challenge, we knew we couldn’t cut any corners, we just had to go around the corners really fast,” Bennett says. “We learned a new definition of the word ‘pace’.”
Innovation at pace meant the PA-led Ventilator Challenge managed to design, approve and manufacture 13,000 ventilators in just 15 weeks – meaning every patient who needed a ventilator had access to one. For PulPac, it meant the industry could offer its sustainable packaging at the same price-point as plastic, in time to match consumer demand for plastic-free options. For Water Source, it meant the water treatment startup had a financially sustainable future. For Virgin Hyperloop, it meant achieving its first ever manned depressurized test. And that’s the whole point of innovation at pace: using human ingenuity to ensure the solutions we need for a better world are available when we need them – now.
–Technology has the potential to answer many of the world’s toughest challenges, but it requires human ingenuity to unleash it. PA Consulting, in partnership with WIRED, shares insights on what it takes to develop and deliver life-changing technology.