Does the new need to be new?

by Kevin McFarthing

Image of astonished business woman holding ipad

Does every innovation need new technology, or a new manufacturing process, or a new patent? Does it need to be new for the sake of it?  Not if you understand exactly what you have before you start, and how it can be exploited further to meet new demands in the marketplace.

It’s always tempting to move on to the next innovation opportunity once the current project has been launched (or even before).  It’s the classic characteristic of many Stage Gate systems – great compliance for most of the gates, but a very low rate of compliance to the post-launch review meeting.  After all, when there is so much urgency to hit the targets for new launches, the successful (?) launch receives a very low priority.

So it’s important that the first step in an innovation process is to understand the context.  This should include a comparison with current competitive offerings and potential future entry based on available intelligence.  For example:

  1. What do your customers need and want?
    1. What are the “must haves”?
    2. What are the “nice to haves”?
  2. On which parameters do we have an advantage?
  3. Is our advantage protected/sustainable?
  4. What is the trajectory of the competitive landscape?

The next step is usually to think of new ideas and concepts to launch in addition to the current portfolio.  But this is where it makes sense to insert an extra step beforehand:

What more can we do with what we already have?

  1. Can we modify an existing product to close a competitive gap or enhance an existing advantage?
  2. Do we have data to support extra claims?
  3. What new claims could we make if we conducted further studies?

Generating new claims for existing products is an under-exploited area of innovation potential.  It takes advantage of existing corporate assets such as IP, supply chain and technical competence.  In many cases, these new claims may even strengthen the IP.

Usually, exploiting existing products to meet a new innovation opportunity also means a faster route to market. From a financial and competitive perspective, this is a major advantage.

A lot of companies use a “super claim” process, analogous to those used to generate new product concepts, to generate potential new claims.  This starts by assembling all the existing data, both technical and consumer, as a stimulus to the process.  If ideas arise that aren’t supported by existing data, the opportunity for new studies can be assessed.

Minor tweaks form the basis for much incremental innovation, the “workhorse” responsible for much of the growth delivered by new products.  The tweaks don’t need to be massive, just big enough for it to be worth shouting about in your communications.

Despite that, it’s not all about incremental innovation; it’s not a compromise against the new and different, diminishing ambition.  On the contrary, the ambition should remain just as strong.  The targets should be high and stretching, it just makes sense to find the fastest, cheapest and easiest route to the destination.  Incidentally, this is where Open Innovation can help.

A lot of “platform” innovation is a good example of building on what is already there, with the iPod and iTunes good examples.  Another example of doing more with existing assets is the pharmaceutical industry’s approach to drug repurposing.  This is the use of a medicine in a therapeutic area different to that for which it was originally developed.

From my own experience at Reckitt Benckiser, we repurposed Temgesic (buprenorphine), used for pain relief, into Suboxone for the treatment of opiate dependence.  It resulted in the creation of a new company, Indivior, with a market capitalisation today of £2.2 billion.  Another example is the use of Avastin, a drug originally developed to treat various cancers, being used to treat wet AMD (age-related macular degeneration), albeit often off-label.

So, the next time you start an innovation journey, make sure you know what you already have and how it can help.  You might just get to your destination faster.
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Kevin McFarthingKevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions and also has experience in life sciences. Follow @InnovationFixer

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