Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Long Lead Time of Innovation

Bill Bixton of Business Week (himself discussing a monograph by Chris Anderson) discussed the notion that it takes a long time for an idea to catch on and be successful.

This seems to be obvious to some, but equally obvious counter examples are easy to find, like the iPhone or Tickle-Me Elmo. How about The Dark Night Batman movie? Prozec?

On the other hand, in the chemical industry it is taking longer and longer to make a break-though mass market innovation. The long induction time of Kevlar comes to mind, and it is still a specialty. It has taken over ten years for polylactic acid PLA to get to the minor share of the polyester market it has today -- is it even 1%.

In my division of BASF we joke about business forecasts with huge volume upswings, and we call them "Hockey Sticks" because of their shape. More often than not the huge growth does not materialize, and people debate on whose fault that was.

The time was when a new polymer or even a new molecule could storm the world. In Pharma I think that is still true today, but blockbuster drugs are getting rarer and rarer. Once something gets regulatory approval, we can see a fast ramp up, often even faster when the patent goes off.

In basic chemicals, the pace of innovation has slowed. I think because the state of knowledge has advanced over the last century, and the basic, generic product is less inferior to the new version. I understand that a new top 50 chemical has not been introduced since the sixties.

On the other hand, there could be new chemicals ripe for commercialization if we had the creativity to realize it. There could be a whopper, but we just don't know. Another Post-it or Velcro.

This reminds me of Clayton Christianson's Disruptive Technology, which might be the subject of another post. He claims that incremental innovation can never give "hockey stick" growth, only new, generally low cost innovations.