At a time when many companies have cut back on their business innovation expenses to pump up their bottom line, Corning Inc. spends nearly 10 percent of revenue on what it calls RD&E: research, development, and engineering. In 2013, it will spend more than US$700 million on RD&E. Again and again over the years, Corning has reinvented itself with products—including optical fiber, liquid crystal display glass substrates, and durable Gorilla Glass, which is now used on more than 1 billion handheld devices—that have emerged from its vast Sullivan Park business innovation facility, a 2-million-square-foot complex in Corning, N.Y., about 230 miles northwest of New York City. The company boasts $8 billion in annual sales, a figure that would be nearly doubled if its share of joint ventures such as Dow Corning, Samsung Corning Precision Materials, and others were included.
Yet starting in the fall of 2012, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Wendell P. Weeks started telling the Corning innovation team, led by Chief Technology Officer (CTO) David L. Morse, that the company’s established RD&E practices were neither good enough nor fast enough. Recognizing intensifying global competition and Wall Street’s never-ending demands for higher profits, Weeks began calling for “agile” innovation—an approach that would enable Corning to respond immediately to the needs of customers, as it famously did in 2007 when Steve Jobs asked the company for a better cover glass for the wave of Apple iPhones about to be launched. The company is currently dispatching its Ph.D. researchers to proactively develop more big opportunities. They are meeting with customers such as Samsung Electronics and Sony to understand and even anticipate their emerging needs in technology areas such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) and 3D television.
Morse, a Ph.D. researcher himself who, alone or jointly, holds 22 patents, has been Corning’s CTO since May 2012. Before that, he was the senior vice president of corporate research. Now he is charged with shepherding this innovative company’s R&D practice through an era of change. In March 2013, at his Sullivan Park office, Morse spoke with s+b contributing editor William J. Holstein about the changing nature of innovation.
S+B: Corning has set a goal of creating more intellectual property and commercializing it faster. What does that mean for the businesses you’re in?
MORSE: Some people in the materials industry today are asking whether long-term, continuous research and development can yield intellectual property. It does. And it always has. You just have to have continuously consistent investment. In a field like this, it’s nearly impossible to say, “I have an idea for a new glass; I’m going to make it in my garage and scale it from there.” Our type of R&D requires the structure of a real laboratory. That’s true whether it’s glass, lasers, or semiconductors.
In the past, we used a standard five-stage innovation model—research, applied research, development, scale-up, and production, all in sequence. The good part of that is it helps you ask every question you could ask, and when you emerge with a product, it’s relatively fail-safe. It’s ready to go. But it’s a slow process. You don’t have the luxury of early-research-stage feedback.
To move faster, you have to be agile. That means taking a little more risk—for example, showing customers prototypes early on, to get their feedback, while recognizing that there could be significant further development required. If the customer says, “I’d like to have something to put on the front of my phone so that it doesn’t scratch,” you can do one of two things. You can say, “OK, I’ll be back in three months with a sample.” Or you can say, “Yes, we can do that. Here’s one we made in the lab this week.”