How much time do you need to transform innovative ideas into patented products ready for manufacture and market? Three years? 12 months? 150 days? For Professor Kaj Mickos at Malardalen University, Sweden, the answer is 72 hours.
Founded by Mickos, the 19th “72 hours Race to Innovation”, a closed-door activity featuring 10 contestants, seven Chinese and three Swedish with diverse backgrounds, backed up by a powerful team of 20 experts from various fields, was held between May 16 and 18 in Beijing under the theme “Improving Daily Life”.
It was part of the China-Sweden Innovation Week celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
Over three interesting, challenging and also tiring days, two groups of participants raced with time to put out all kinds of original ideas. Hundreds of innovative concepts were tested for practicality, many of which were killed off by legal and patent professionals. Only the shortlisted ones entered the next stage.
After 72 hours, at the concluding conference, 16 finished products and 18 patents were presented. The latter included three inventions, two designs and 11 utility models. Products were made up of a wide range of curious gadgets. “Indoor Guide” was a mobile-like map application showing the world of interiors. “Cable Guy” was a futuristic-looking plastic clip used on both smooth and rough surfaces to prevent cords from slipping. “GM Food Tester” was a portable device to find out in a few minutes whether rice was genetically modified. “Duckling” was a cup with a specially designed mouth that poured without dripping.
Innovation can come anywhere, anytime, and you only need to stay curious and observe daily life closely, participants said.
The contest was based on the view that companies need to put out products and services to market at a faster and faster pace to cling to their foothold in today’s increasingly competitive global market.
“When the winds of change are blowing, don’t build a shelter, build a windmill,” said Professor Mickos, describing his concept.
In the eyes of Mickos, the mastermind behind the “72 hours” challenge and owner of Innovation Plant, a consulting firm focused on the advancement of innovation within companies, innovation never lies exclusively in researchers’ laboratories or scholars’ papers, but is an attitude anyone of any age, profession or social status is capable of, given the right support from professionals in designing, engineering, marketing and so forth.
“The key to promote the innovation process in a society is to create a favorable climate and an institution that nourishes innovative spirit,” he said.
Marketable innovation is by no means an outcome of a single genius but requires collective efforts. “Cooperation works,” he said about the fruits of the “72 hours Race to Innovation”.
According to Mickos, an innovation doesn’t necessarily need a long time to develop. Many companies spend a considerable amount of money and time on research and development only to turn out undesirable results.
Believing that the overlying problem is the inefficiency and obsoleteness of the innovation process and the mishandling of internal ideas, Mickos set up his Innovation Plant to guide companies through a streamlined procedure by shifting the focus from the importance of the idea to the importance of using the right tools to realize the idea. It provides firms with the right knowledge and the right implements to make the most of their already existent knowledge capital.
There is only one place for all innovations to be rewarded, that is the market, Mickos insisted. The most effective way to generate innovative ideas is to spot problems in the market. As a result, one should regard problems in the market as business opportunities, rather than using good ideas to create a market.
The important element to an innovation is to capitalize on it, he said. The professor told China Business Weekly that there were already potential buyers showing great interest in the products unveiled, which are ready for manufacturing. He added he was optimistic about their prospects considering the huge market in China.
“China is moving very fast in innovations, at a pace faster than Japan”, he said. “What’s happening in China is amazing.”
Talking about the threat of rampant piracy of innovation, Mickos said it was just a stage one has to go through. “In making innovations one has to respect international rules. I have noticed signs of enhanced intellectual property enforcement by the Chinese government,” he said.
A distinguished entrepreneur and innovator himself, Mickos has provided consultative services to more than 20,000 inventors, participated in over 3,000 institution-funded invention projects and currently holds 30 invention patents. The first “72 hours Race” was held in Sweden in the spring of 2007 and so far 14 events have been organized in Sweden, and four outside the country (two in Finland and now three in China).
The basis for all the races is that they strive to put new products and services on the market and help people reach their full potential. The first event produced seven innovative patents, including three whose manufacturing permits had been purchased by companies even before the activity concluded.
Sweden has long been recognized as an innovative nation and many world-class corporations and brands, such as IKEA, Ericsson and Volvo, have sprung from a base in the Scandinavian country. Today, some 400 Swedish companies and investors have established themselves in China.
As Mickos said, most Swedish companies regard innovation as an indispensable element of development. One good example is AstraZeneca, a global biopharmaceutical company.
“We invest more than $4 billion in research and development (R&D) every year and have more than 11,000 employees working in clinical research and new product development,” Anders Ekblom, executive vice-president of AstraZeneca Global Drug Development, told China Business Weekly. Currently, AstraZeneca has R&D facilities in Sweden, China, UK, US, France, Canada, India and Japan.