Mike Herd: On innovation

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Innovation Special

Why “I will listen” should be your new mantra

Mike Herd Sussex InnovationTwenty-one years since the Sussex Innovation Centre opened and ten years since Mindlab made the hub its home, what has happened to innovation? We spoke to the person who would know – Mike Herd, the Executive Director who set up the centre and has driven its success. In this time, some people’s expectations have become unrealistic according to Mike. He told us that there are two drivers for this.

1. Speed  

”It has become much faster to innovate. It is interesting now that when people talk about ‘tech’, it’s not a shortening of ‘technology’. People just mean apps and mobile, both of which are relatively quick to create. Yes, innovating in other sectors has sped up but it still takes quite a long time to develop electronics, drug discovery, biotech and so on. There have been lots of accelerators set up where if you can’t create a new product in twelve weeks then you’re dismissed. To write an app in that time is achievable but to deliver a drug is a lot trickier!”

2. Profitability

“Most of the highly successful innovations in the past ten years within the tech area have not had any product. They are skimming the profits off someone else, like Uber or Just Eat, for instance. Just Eat doesn’t cook any food but it’s taking a big bite out of the orders – a very good business model because it can be hugely profitable. The issue in other industries is that then becomes the expectation of investors. You can no longer say: ‘It’s going to take half a million pounds to get to a prototype and then we’ll make a 20% gross profit, maybe 5% profit.’ People look at that compared to an internet venture and it’s no longer an attractive investment.”

1An impressive 85% of businesses that come to the innovation centre succeed and 15-20% of those scale significantly. How do you know when someone comes to you with a good idea?

“The principle I apply is: I will listen. Generally, I can’t make a judgement based on one conversation so I start from the perspective that I’ll believe your idea will do what you can say it can do. Then let’s see if there is a market for it. Then I ask: do you have the ambition to do it?

“The two aspects of market and ambition rule most people out. If they meet all three criteria, then we will find out quite quickly whether the idea can actually work.

“What I try to do is build up the ambition of the idea – how big could this be? If it’s big, then it’s worth trying to conquer the hurdles.”

What innovation trends do you think will take off over the next few years? 

“Firstly, I’m seeing a real explosion in “Psytech” companies – those that apply psychology to technology or technology to psychology. This rise is because companies are looking for the subtleties of how you differentiate yourself in an increasingly complex marketplace and how you create something that works at a local level. It’s also due to an increasing interest in wellness. People are accepting stress and mental health as an issue which five years ago nobody would touch.

“Electronic sensors are also becoming huge. In each area, a sensor might have twenty different applications, so how can you use it and how can you use the data it captures? With the Internet of Things, we’re asking how you can make someone’s life easier but then how do you affect it as a group?

“When it comes to all this data, there is so much of it that you have to find a way of dealing with it. AI is going to continue to be a key area because if you can create things which teach themselves, then the more data the better. It’s no longer overwhelming.

“Finally, there is a lot of envy from bigger business looking at smaller businesses and thinking, ‘I wish I could be a bit more like that’. So trying to find that interesting interface of how to introduce smaller companies to bigger companies and how to make that work – that’s where I’m seeing a lot of interest.”

Watch our very own Duncan Smith talks about his experiences at the hub over the last ten years. 

This is the latest interview in the Mindlab Academy, a series of interviews with experts on challenges and opportunities in market research. Catch up on other articles on desire, lies and failure here.