Elmar Mock believes that "most people talk of innovation but what they actually do, is renovation". He should know: in 1980 Mock, together with fellow engineer Jacques Müller, co-invented the Swatch, the plastic watch that started the rescue -- and led to the current triumph -- of the then-depressed Swiss watchmaking industry, which was suffering in particular from the competition of Japanese digital watch manufacturers such as Seiko.
Mock and Müller sketched out the lightweight, iconic, fashionable and colored plastic watch in May 1980. Codename of the first prototypes: "Delirium Vulgare". The first collection of 12 Swatch models went on sale in Zurich in 1983. The key engineering innovation of the Swatch was to use an integrated production technique that reduced the number of parts by half, to about 50; but the key design and marketing innovation was to put on the market a plastic watch that, at the beginning, met with legions of skeptics. But which went on to sell hundreds of millions of pieces -- the 333-million mark was past in 2006.
Mock (picture left) left Swatch in 1986 and to launch his own innovation firm, Creaholic, in Biel/Bienne, a city along the language divide between the German and the French parts of Switzerland, which someone dubbed "the Swiss Liverpool" for the industrial turmoil of the 1980s and the creative and economic renewal of the last 15 years. Mock will also be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Forum des 100 conference in Lausanne, which I've been producing.
I visited with Mock the other day at Creaholic's headquarter, nested in a former soap factory in the center of town: high ceilings, a suspended meeting room reachable through a short glass bridge, and plenty of room for the 30-something employees and partners. Creaholic has worked and works on a whole range of products, from hearing aids to ski gear, from packaging to flavors, from software to micromechanical devices. Their creative model is, says Mock, inspired by nature: ideas travel from a "gas phase", that of high-energy creativity, fantasy and dreams (and chaos), to a "liquid phase", where they start to coalesce and take a tangible form (here is where design comes into play, where thinking about usage and aesthetics are at work), to a "solid phase" where the value of the idea can be truly measured, and where the practical aspects of the development are dealt with (materials, production, industrialization).
The problem of innovation, says Mock, is in the love-hate relationship between the "gas" and the "solid" phases: it is in turning an intuition or a dream into an actual product that can "bring a timely business advantage" -- because competitive advantages, so thinks Creaholic, are always limited in time, and only constant innovation can keep you ahead.
Mock told me about some of the projects Creaholic has been working on, and one in particular, which is now a spinoff, caught my attention: WoodWelding. The starting point was some research into using thermoplastic elements (resins) to weld, reinforce or anchor wood. Said in very simple terms (I'm probably oversimplifying) WoodWelding's technology uses nails or seals or pegs made of synthetic resins as fixations. Put a resin nail into wood, for example and pass ultrasonic energy through it: the resin will start to liquefy and penetrate into the porous material. It then cools rapidly, resulting -- in a few seconds -- in a stable and durable bond. Look at the bottom item in the picture: the resin nail has basically "melted" into the wood, becoming "part" of it. This is applicable to most porous materials, such as chipboard, concrete, or paper.
The technology however had a slow start, and for what I know only one company has licensed the technology for things like cabinet and window assembly. However, the part that I found most interesting is that several companies have licensed it for medical applications. Because -- and this was nowhere in the inventor's initial thinking -- bones are also a very porous material, and the WoodWelding technology has turned out to be ideal for cranio-maxillofacial usage (welding a broken skull, for instance) or for orthopaedics.
This is a very telling example of how innovations often find their best/ideal applications outside their original field of reference -- and spotting this lateral opportunities (finding ideas and solutions outside your field, etc) is a key way to gain a competitive edge.