Accelerating Scientific Innovation: A Q&A with Nic Encina, Vice President, PerkinElmer Innovation Lab


Overcoming the Innovator’s Dilemma

Best - if not first - explained in Clayton Christensen’s 1997 best-seller, “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail,” the dilemma faced by companies is how to meet customers’ current needs while also preparing to meet future or unstated needs. Why do so many successful companies miss developing disruptive technologies and innovations that could have catapulted their growth, and which may instead trigger their demise?

The Innovation Lab

A popular means of addressing the dilemma is the creation of innovation labs. AT&T was one of the first, with Bell Labs – the inspiration for Jon Gertner’s book, “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.” Lockheed Martin developed Skunk Works® back in 1943 and continues innovating from it today. Universities, governments, and companies from Lowe’s Home Improvement to organizations such as UNICEF have launched innovation labs that stimulate new thinking in order to solve new and emerging challenges.

PerkinElmer has one too. We recently caught up with Nicolas Encina, vice president of PerkinElmer, Inc.’s Innovation Lab in Kendall Square, Cambridge, Mass. , to find out what’s behind this initiative – and why it should matter to you. 

Q: What, exactly, is an innovation lab?

A: Typically, it’s an environment where a diversified team can focus on strategic - or even speculative - initiatives in a way other product development and management teams cannot. We can look three to five or even 10 years out to pursue and explore a variety of opportunities with a greater tolerance for risk and failure. Innovation labs typically need to be loosely tied to the corporate goals, both physically and culturally, so that they can focus on things beyond quarterly or yearly objectives. At the end of the day, all R&D departments innovate in one way or another, but it really boils down to scope and horizons. 

Q: What led PerkinElmer to create its Innovation Lab?

A: Our President and CEO, Robert Friel, wanted to address the innovator’s dilemma. It’s a concern that successful companies have – where you have great products that your customers love and expect you to maintain and support, and, of course, to continue updating, so most of your resources get channeled toward maintaining your existing competitive advantage . Our R&D departments are feverishly working on and producing those types of innovative solutions. 

But identifying entirely new opportunities shouldn’t be an after-thought or left to chance, because unless you’re mentally and physically prepared to seize new opportunities you’ll most likely miss them entirely.   Many of the most innovative companies have some form of innovation lab. They recognize that you need to create startup environments to focus on forward-looking and disruptive innovations. Robert Friel encourages our organization to innovate and collaborate.  We’ve recruited some of the finest minds from world-leading companies and universities to our Innovation Lab to tackle difficult problems across healthcare – which is our initial area of focus.

Q: How do innovation labs stay grounded with a company’s mission and goals, and not just innovating for innovations’ sake?

A: It’s interesting to balance the need to create value while you’re trying to give your team permission to follow their passions, risk failure, take chances, and experiment. Ultimately, I do believe that it’s about having the right people involved and creating an environment that encourages them to do what they do best. But in order to avoid a random walk that becomes too academic, we guide ourselves with an innovation strategy and an evolving portfolio of ideas that we’re actively working on. This helps direct our thinking.

Q: What is the direction?

A: We know that the future of science and exploration is based on data. PerkinElmer provides instruments that generate data, but  our customers  also value the information and insights that the instruments produce.  They also see the importance in how these insights contextually align with the broader challenge of innovating to improve human- and environmental health.   That gives us at the Innovation Lab our purpose, with a common thread of exploring opportunities from big data, cloud and the Internet of Things. 

Every year, with all the advances in technology, our customers are generating more data, richer data – gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes of data. And the challenge for our customers has become, ‘What do I do with all of this?’ It’s become too much to manage. 

This is not a hypothesis - customers are struggling with data. We know that for a fact because they tell us. So we need to think about what those solutions, those next steps are, to help our customers become more efficient and effective. It’s a natural outcome once you start thinking of your customers more as collaborators.

Q: Describe how the Innovation Lab determines next steps and solutions for customers.

A: We test theories, vet and validate our ideas with actual customers when appropriate. Once we identify the general direction that we want to go in, we further break things down to Minimal Viable Products (MVPs) that define a developmental stage that can prove or disprove a hypothesis. Then we gather information and make hundreds of micro-pivots as we refine the theory further. It’s very much an evolutionary process that favors smaller leaps over larger bounds. 

Our ultimate goal is to create something that we can quickly put in front of early adopters so that we can accelerate the learning process by observing usage in a semi-controlled environment. We have co-development relationships with a few customers who will use and test what we’re building, understanding that the product is early and subject to change. With two or three early adopters for beta testing, we get enough inbound data to determine when we’re on to something. Then we can expand. Once we conclude that we have a repeatable experience that delivers true value then we can move to a production stage.

Q: Have you had any successes?

A: In October 2015 we introduced PerkinElmer Signals® for Translational, a cloud-based data management, aggregation and analysis platform we developed in the Innovation Lab in collaboration with top pharmaceutical companies and with expertise from within PerkinElmer in translational medicine. It’s out in the market and resonating with customers. We’re developing the PerkinElmer Signals™ platform to satisfy other modalities such as high content screening. It’s both the basis for and just the beginning of what we’re doing.

Q: How do innovation labs deal with failure?

A: We recognize that our CEO has entrusted us to do things that are exceptional, new, and interesting, and part of achieving that is you need to take chances. But you mitigate failure by approaching new challenges systematically. Ultimately, failure isn’t failure if you learn something valuable from it – even if all you learn is that your previous attempt isn’t the right one. Sometimes really interesting things come from unexpected places. It can open up new channels, new ways of thinking to discover unanticipated things.

You also have to hire the right people who can learn from failure and be fearless without being reckless. 

Q: What kinds of people are attracted to the work in innovation labs like yours? 

A: For starters, we’re all engineers in one form or another. But we look for people who are experimental, aren’t intimidated by new and complex sciences and have the right skills to implement their vision to solve the most pressing scientific problems of our time. 

We’re a combination of experimenters and true professional software engineers who come from production environments on low-tolerance, mission-critical projects in big data and the cloud. Our team members need to have autonomy; they have to be willing to teach and learn from each other and have a drive for the mission. At PerkinElmer, we definitely need to be curious and comfortable tackling the wide variety of sciences, industries and technologies we’re involved in. But it’s great because we work on projects in rapid prototyping and iterative ways that expose us to lots of people at the height of their fields. 

The pace, change and commitment to creating technical solutions for the next generation of health challenges keeps things interesting. As compared to many other innovation labs, we know that when we discover something new it could have significant impact and ultimately improve or even help save  lives. There are few things more motivating.

Q: Any final thoughts on how the Innovation Lab benefits customers?

A: The world is changing so rapidly. Our customers need to know we’re looking ahead and not just around the next corner, to deliver solutions for their most pressing challenges. Having an Innovation Lab, being committed to innovating on an entirely new level, lets our customers leverage the best of new ideas, like the cloud and Internet of Things, so they can make breakthroughs and have success in their endeavors.

Innovation Labs, like those of PerkinElmer or other major brands, serve as a lightning rod for discovery and innovation. The future of science and exploration is based on data and PerkinElmer  is increasingly helping customers aggregate, manage and analyze the wide range of data generated from its instruments. The Innovation Lab is proving itself to be an indispensable tool for exploring opportunities with big data, the cloud and the Internet of Things.

To learn more about PerkinElmer’s Innovation Lab, contact Nic and his team at: InnovationLab@PERKINELMER.COM