Innovation Instincts

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Organization support and culture help promote product innovation, but there’s no substitute for the creative instincts of the inventor

Story by Rick Berg

November 2016

Dave Gruenwald fits the profile of an inventor and innovator about as well as anyone you’ll meet. A mechanical engineer by profession, a do-it-yourselfer by avocation and a perfectionist by temperament, Gruenwald said he has developed and patented more than 20 products in his lifetime.

In Gruenwald’s estimation, none really paid off for him until he developed a product called SnotTape, which he and his partners are now producing and marketing independently through approximately 500 retailers, including Ace Hardware, True Value, Hallman-Lindsay Paints and Kitz & Pfeil Hardware. Introduced last year, SnotTape won the consumer product category of the 2016 Wisconsin Innovation Awards.

Good thing he’s also patient – or at least persistent: SnotTape took Gruenwald more than five years to develop.

It all started when Gruenwald, a co-founder of Oshkosh-based Davinci Engineering and Consulting, tried painting the walls of his den bright red, while leaving the ceiling white. Even after trying multiple types of painter’s tape, he couldn’t keep the red paint from bleeding onto the white ceiling. Applying his engineering background, he soon realized that the challenge was the irregularity of the surface texture, and that the adhesive on the tape was not able to fill the gaps.

It seemed at the time like a relatively easy problem to solve: Just find an adhesive that would do a better job of filling those surface texture gaps. Not so much. Gruenwald ended up trying more than 400 combinations of adhesives and saturants, including hot melt, acrylics and silicones before finally landing on the right chemistry.

Even then, his problem was not solved. Proof of concept in hand, Gruenwald put together a group of investors and set about finding a company to manufacture the product and a national firm to take the product to market. Striking out on both counts, Gruenwald and his partners created their own coating line at Davinci Engineering to produce SnotTape and then took the product to market themselves. Gruenwald said they expect to be in at least 2,000 retail outlets by spring 2017.

Innovation is a strategy, not an accident

Cheryl Perkins, the founder and president of Neenah-based Innovationedge, said Gruenwald’s story is typical of the challenges faced by small-company product developers, but that innovation is hard for any company, regardless of size.

Before launching Innovationedge, Perkins was senior vice president and chief innovation officer at Kimberly-Clark Corp., where she oversaw innovation processes, including research and development, engineering, design, new business, global strategic alliances, environment, safety and regulatory affairs.

“Regardless of the size of the company, there are a handful of enablers that I think are critical to successful innovation,” Perkins said. “It’s around culture and environment. You have to have some key sponsors or stakeholders in the company who champion innovation.”

She cites as an example Appleton-based Presto Products, which recently introduced its Child-Guard slider technology for flexible packaging. Designed to retain the easy-open capabilities adults prefer, Child-Guard is intended to make it difficult for children to open packaging that may contain harmful chemicals in products like household detergents and lawn products.

Brad Hansen, president of the Presto Specialty Group at Presto Products, said the technology emerged after the company and some of its packaging clients noted the increasing exposure of poisoning in young children as a result of their ability to access harmful chemicals contained in flexible packaging.

“We knew there was a void in the flexible packaging category for a child-resistant zipper and committed ourselves to develop a solution that would satisfy this critical market need,” Hansen said.

“At Presto, innovation is absolutely from the top down, and that’s an example of how you foster innovation in a company,” Perkins said. “To encourage innovation, you need a strategy that is designed to foster innovation – if you don’t define innovation as a goal, you’ll never get there.

“You also want a culture that encourages people to think beyond their jobs and feel free to do so,” Perkins added. “And you want an environment that enables them to access other resources or capabilities that they need to make innovation happen. So, strategy, culture and environment are critical.”

Flexibility and resilience are also critical

On a cautionary note, Perkins said some well-meaning companies become too enamored with creating an innovation structure in their organizations, at the expense of allowing real creativity and innovation.

“Another innovation enabler – but you have to be very careful with this one – is process,” Perkins said. “You want to have an innovation process in place, but you don’t want it to be a rigid process. It needs to be a flexible framework. If it’s rigid, the process becomes an end in itself.”

The final challenge for many companies – especially smaller ones like Dave Gruenwald’s Snotco – is having the resources in place to allow innovation to occur. Even large companies often need to practice ‘open innovation’ and look outside their organizations for human and financial capital, Perkins said.

“The challenge for smaller companies, like Dave Gruenwald’s for example, is that they don’t necessarily have the capital and resources they need to bring the idea to market, but they also have a day job doing something else, so there aren’t any dedicated resources available exclusively for innovation,” Perkins said. “In that case, speed to market is going to three to five times longer than if you had those dedicated resources.”

The fact that innovators and inventors like Gruenwald succeed despite years of trial and error speaks to the one characteristic required of any entrepreneur. “It just takes a lot of resilience,” Perkins said. “They are just so resilient.”

A breakthrough in heart medicine

The world of medicine has always been notable for its reliance on break-through developments, but innovation in medicine comes with the added barrier in today’s world that new medical products and procedures have to be stringently tested.

The Absorb bioresorbable heart stent, for example, was many years in development and five years of testing by Abbott Laboratories before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its use in July. This past September, Prevea Health cardiologist Dr. Zhaowei Ai became the first Wisconsin cardiologist to implant the Absorb heart stent in a patient at HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay.

Ai, who was on the products advisory committee during development, believes it was just the first of many such procedures, which will become common once other cardiologists become proficient in its use. That takes time, Ai said, even for those who have performed hundreds of stent implants with metal stents, which have been in widespread use for more than 30 years to improve artery function.

“It requires a slightly different skill compared to implanting the metal stents we are accustomed to,” Ai said. 

The advantage of the bioresorbable stent, Ai said, is that it will gradually dissolve in the artery, enhancing the healing process and making it easier to perform future procedures in the area of the stent.

“If you look at the way the healing process works, you don’t want to leave anything behind if you don’t have to,” Ai said. “With the metal stents we have been using, if you need to do a procedure in that area later, you have to work around the stent. With this, it is quite easy later on to perform a bypass or other procedure in that area.”

Ai said the technology and materials used to create the Absorb stent will likely have future uses in other areas of medicine, including orthopedics. Orthopedic plates, for example, could be made of the same materials, allowing the plates to dissolve once they have completed their job of helping fractured bones heal.

“This is definitely better technology than we have had in the past,” Ai said.

Persistence pays off

For any inventor in any field in any size of company, one personal trait seems to be the key to successful innovation. Perkins called it resilience. Gruenwald calls it persistence.

When asked what advice he might have for other would-be inventors, Gruenwald at first joked.

“My advice is to give it up while you still can,” he said. “It’s a sickness.”

Then he turned serious.

“You have to have persistence,” Gruenwald said. “No matter how long it takes, no matter how many times you fail to get it right, you just can’t quit. You might take a breather for a while – put it on the shelf for a time – but always come back to it.

“On this one, I finally came across an adhesive I believed would work and it took me months just to track down the source of that product. It turned out that it wasn’t the product I needed after all, but it took me down a different path that eventually led me to what we have now. Persistence is everything.” 

Rick Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.