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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Five Gates to Innovation

In Gorilla’s case, once the test run had been completed and customers grew excited about the possible product, Steiner had to gear up the whole organization, reaching across traditional turf lines to obtain scientific, management, and sales help. There was little time to waste. The rate of innovation in the consumer electronics field is so relentless that “you can’t be out there making promises with vaporware,” Matthews says. “You’ve got to put resources behind the opportunity and jump on it.”

Convincing the Researchers

The key source of technical expertise was Sullivan Park Research Center in Erwin, N.Y., the company’s heralded R&D facility, home of such technical breakthroughs as cathode-ray tubes, advanced purification materials for catalytic converters, and highly efficient, low-loss optical fibers. To recruit a group of scientists for the Gorilla project, Steiner enlisted his business technology manager, Xavier Lafosse, who also works for the top brass at Sullivan Park in a dual reporting arrangement Corning designed to facilitate joint activities between the commercial units and research teams. With Lafosse pointing the way and Steiner reaching out in person to individual scientists to spark their interest in Gorilla, as many as 100 researchers joined the project either full-time or part-time. “Our scientists will work where they know they can make an impact and where they’re appreciated,” Steiner says.

Indeed, Steiner and his team needed all the scientific help they could get. The manufacturing process was a complex affair marked by a painstakingly intricate ion exchange in a salt bath. Essentially, the glass is soaked in potassium at several hundred degrees centigrade until sodium ions on both sides of the glass are replaced by much bigger potassium ions, which because of their size greatly strengthen the material. Scientists at Sullivan Park liken the operation to taking a wall made of tennis balls, ripping out most of the tennis balls, and replacing them with basketballs. Obviously, the wall would have much higher density.

Sampling began in December 2007. Four months later, Corning won its first Gorilla customer, and by June, full-scale production and marketing were under way — a fast track through the stage gates that posed any number of challenges. For one, Steiner had to find a melting tank to manufacture Gorilla in large batches because the Danville facility couldn’t handle such an ambitious effort. He approached his colleagues in the much larger and highly successful display division and was able to obtain tank space in a plant in Harrodsburg, Ky. “We kind of had to wedge in,” says Steiner.

Company Expectations

That Steiner could even accomplish that illustrates a key advantage of Corning’s innovation process. Although turf issues can be tricky to navigate — executives approached by Steiner had little to gain from working with him because their compensation was based primarily on meeting their own targets — Corning’s division heads recognize that the company expects them to support promising new product launches. “In many companies, Gorilla glass might get to use the tank one time because the CEO makes the phone call,” says Harvard’s Henderson. After that event, she adds, the CEO’s attention is often diverted and the upstart is likely to be frozen out. In this case, intervention from CEO Weeks was unnecessary, the company says.

Throughout the development of Gorilla, Steiner made sure that the scientists attached to the project were meeting face-to-face with possible customers. “We have to create demand, and our scientists are one of our best commercial weapons,” Steiner says. “The credibility they give us is more than we can grow on our own.” Moreover, Corning officials say, by talking to customers frequently, the researchers can at times anticipate their needs.

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  1. Davis Dyer and Daniel Gross, The Generations of Corning: The Life and Times of a Global Corporation (Oxford University Press, 2001): A company-approved but nonetheless revealing history of the Houghton family and the company.
  2. Margaret B.W. Graham and Alec T. Shuldiner, Corning and the Craft of Innovation (Oxford University Press, 2001): A history of the research and development process at Corning.
  3. William J. Holstein, “Trial by Fire,” Business 2.0, February 1, 2003: A look at how Wall Street urged Corning to dump all non-fiber optic businesses, which the company resisted.
  4. Michael Mandel, “Corning: Lessons from the Bust and Boom,” Business Week, May 4, 2009: An interview with Corning CEO Wendell Weeks on how the company navigates its way through technology cycles.
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