INNOVATION IS A PEOPLE BUSINESS

Mario Hehle has headed Corporate Innovation at Heraeus since April 2018. In his view, cooperation is one of the most important factors in research. This includes integrating the individual business areas—and collaborating with external partners and startups.

Innovation

Between two other meetings Mario Hehle has time for a chat. He’s just returned from Asia, where he’s been spending a lot of time recently, talking with industry experts and startup companies, and attending major, exclusive industry events. “Asia is providing Silicon Valley with some strong competition in the east,” he says. In addition to its proximity to such excellent universities as Stanford and UC Berkeley, Silicon Valley has one primary advantage: Startups there can access money quickly and easily. “The Chinese government is currently heavily expanding the infrastructure for collaboration on research and startups in the Greater Bay Area around Hong Kong. It will become one of the world’s leading innovation regions,” Hehle explains. The scene is growing rapidly, and innovative capacity along with it. Hong Kong and Shenzhen are doing their best to supersede Palo Alto and Mountain View.

Asia has always played an important role for Heraeus. The group makes more than 40 percent of its revenue there. But the region—along with other hotspots like Israel, Singapore, and London—is gaining significance for completely different reasons. In these times of ubiquitous disruption, Heraeus is realigning its innovation management—while adopting the recipes for success of the startup culture. “We want to innovate more efficiently,” says Hehle. One way to do this is by introducing agile working philosophies. Hehle thinks that one of the major factors in this involves breaking down the silo mentalities and collaborating across departments. “Our company is overflowing with expertise, and others can benefit from it. We have to share these best practices with each other.” The Innovation Excellence project is focusing on changing the company culture itself.

Transforming innovation

fiftyOne

The opening of the fiftyONE innovation center at the Hanau headquarters in spring 2018 was a giant leap forward in the transformation of the innovation culture at Heraeus. Mario Hehle’s first day of work was only a few weeks after the first employees moved into the new building. Since then, managing and coordinating the work in the innovation center has become one of his core tasks. “The building’s architecture facilitates the quick exchange of expertise. The events held at fiftyONE also help to engage our colleagues from different disciplines in conversation with each other. Above all, they bring in new points of view and provide inspiration.” For Mario Hehle, all these components contribute to an open corporate culture.

Transforming the culture of innovation is a focal point of the reorganized group innovation unit at Heraeus, with an emphasis on open innovation. Heraeus is increasingly opening its innovation work to external partners. This includes building and managing strategic collaborations with core innovation partners such as research networks and universities, as well as searching for new partners. “Innovation is one of our strengths as a company and we can make a great deal of progress even on our own,” says Hehle. “But working together is faster—and usually better, too.”

Always on the lookout

startup

Heraeus began actively scouting for startups last year, and is always on the lookout for new ideas and technologies that could be relevant for individual business areas. To this end, the company is turning to databases and participating in venture capital funds, and has built up its own small team of scouts. If you want to work with startups, you have to move fast. Not just because time moves faster for them, but also because competition is so fierce. “Competitors take notice of people with good ideas sooner or later,” says Hehle. “That’s why it’s essential to be able to make decisions quickly.”

Startup scouting has already begun to bear fruit. Heraeus began investing in Forciot in late 2018. The Finnish startup develops solutions for stretchable electronics—a future market for Heraeus. It has everything Heraeus is looking for in a startup: trend-setting technology, a strong team, and the right market maturity for an investment.

“We have really honed our skills at finding startups that are right for us,” says Hehle. But how can an international corporation and a startup work together successfully? How do you combine the turbulence of a startup with the systems and stability of an established corporation? This investment in Forciot will start to provide answers. Heraeus is already planning its next move, however: Before the end of 2019 a startup accelerator will be opened to offer young companies the opportunity to further develop their business idea in the protected atmosphere of an internationally successful technology group, using the group’s resources.

Hehle has a variety of responsibilities at Heraeus, from cultural change manager to startup scout. This doesn’t intimidate him however. “I found the variety of tasks to be appealing,” he says. “Every business area functions differently, and there are countless microcultures. Turning that into a more integrated innovation system is a lot of fun for me.” He feels comfortable at the interface between leading the market and acting as a think tank: His career has included working for international corporations and helping to build up startups. “You have to have seen both sides in order to build a bridge,” says Hehle. “Innovation is a people business.”