How a company views and approaches innovation can differ wildly depending on the fields or industries it operates within. Perhaps because of this, most companies confine their innovative efforts to a single industry or a small group of interrelated industries. The Industrial Technology Research Institute, based in Hsinchu, Taiwan, stands in stark contrast to this, producing innovations in a vast range of fields, from material science to biomedical engineering. In doing so, they have proven the ability of one company to produce innovations across industries, receiving two honors at this year’s Edison Awards. In the first international episode of the Inspiring Minds podcast, Dr. Jacob Singh Kwan Lin and Dr. Tsing Sao Chen explain how innovation is approached and executed at this highly diverse company.
In the first of their two wins, ITRI took gold in the Adhesives category for their product Celluad, a product developed in part by Dr. Lin, Research Director of Materials Research and Development at the company. Made using cellulose, an organic material found in plant cell walls, this adhesive is low-cost, strong, water-resistant, and environmentally friendly. Compatible with existing manufacturing processes, Celluad provides excellent adhesion when applied to plywood, flooring, and lumber core board. Most importantly, ITRI’s adhesive is completely free of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical found in the resin used to construct most artificial wooden boards. In this way, ITRI offers an adhesive solution that is effective and affordable as well as healthier for manufacturers, consumers, and the environment.
The second award ITRI received this year was bronze in Cellular Research for iKNOBEADS, the world’s first and only biomimetic magnetic beads capable of fighting cancer by stimulating, expanding, and strengthening T cells through imitation of the immune system. Dr. Chen, who worked directly on their development, explains that the knobby shape which gives iKNOBEADS their name and makes them so effective was the result of a happy accident that occurred while experimenting with different bead sizes when it was found that the addition of texture to the beads increased expansion rate. Because of this, iKNOBEADS not only fight cancer but do so with an incubation period reduced by three to four days, reducing opportunities for contamination and saving money.
At ITRI, innovation is viewed as a process that must be curtailed by commercialization. Projects begin in feasibility testing and move beyond this point only if this testing returns positive results. According to Dr. Lin, the development of a new product at ITRI follows a general six-step path, which he outlines using Celluad as an example. This process begins with the identification of needs within a particular market or within society in general. The most important role innovation plays in this world is to respond to human needs and improve the quality of life. Approaching development as a direct response to those needs ensures that the resulting product fulfills this important role, while also guaranteeing a place on the market for that product. Celluad’s development began as a response to the high amounts of formaldehyde released from most artificial wooden boards intended for construction or decorative purposes, like plywood and particleboard. Formaldehyde is a colorless gas that, in high concentrations, is known to cause cancer and other serious health issues. In plywood and other artificial boards, this gas is released from adhesives within the boards that are made using urea-formaldehyde.
The second step, per Dr. Lin, is to design and evaluate the product with the identified need in mind. In the case of Celluad, this meant creating a formaldehyde-free adhesive that performed as well as, if not better than, traditional urea-formaldehyde adhesives. The key ingredient to this adhesive turned out to be the world’s most abundant organic material: cellulose. Using cellulose, ITRI was able to not only eliminate unnecessary health risks associated with formaldehyde use but to do so with an adhesive that is strong, resilient, and sustainably sourced.
With this solution found and its efficacy confirmed through testing, Celluad moved into the third of ITRI’s six steps: scaling up. As Dr. Lin explains, testing in the laboratory must be scaled up to ensure that products consistently pass performance evaluations. Step four entails “real testing,” or testing the product in actual usage situations, and flows directly into step five, which is receiving and acting upon lead user feedback. As these steps suggest, the value of testing and evaluation at every step of the innovative process cannot be overstated. The final step of ITRI’s product development process is searching for venture capital investments. For ITRI, this includes looking to local and international companies, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and the Taiwanese government to invest in new startups formed by the company to manage innovations. These startups receive step-by-step templates to follow as well as all research and development are done by ITRI regarding the particular product or service. Celluad itself has spawned two successful startups, one producing plywood and the other adhesives.
This is how the innovative process works for products developed at ITRI in a general sense. However, additional steps may be required depending on the industry the product is intended for, as was the case for iKNOBEADS. All biomedical products must receive approval from the FDA or an official institute laboratory before entering the market. Requiring the product to undergo clinical trials, approval is given based on the success rate of treatment, potentially requiring further adjustments. To increase success rates, Dr. Chen explains that ITRI will collaborate with different companies whose products target different cells to make modifications that will improve the rates of both products. Dr. Chen also states that the requirement of GMP (Good manufacturing practice) compliant materials can complicate the process for biomedical products, although ITRI has an edge with seven GMP pilot plants integrated within the company.
Innovation can be achieved in any field, at any time, if the approach used is solid in its foundations. Companies like ITRI, who produce innovative products and services in a wide variety of industries, prove that this is the case. By examining their approach and process, innovators can learn what practices and ideas are crucial to innovation regardless of specifics and, in doing so, potentially open their eyes to opportunities in different industries or encourage them to pursue ideas outside the usual spheres.