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Editorial: Wither Goeth Innovation?

By Len Monheit

I've been thinking lately about innovation - and where it comes from. I'm not talking about the intuitive, research driven approach, or survey results or focus group identifying market opportunities, but on a practical level, what dialogue, resources and inputs lead to innovation, where (on an interaction sense) these occur, and how this is likely to change in upcoming years due to the impact of technology, rising travel costs, mushrooming and multiplying of events and conferences, global implications, and finally changing industry dynamics and pressures leading to new types of relationships, alliances, distribution models and licensing. I could also superimpose other budgeting constraints, key staff turnover and regulatory challenges into this evaluation.

My path to this state has been influenced by observing and participating in numerous events and forums over the past few years, obviously including most industry shows, and most recently, Nutracon and SupplySide East. The challenge, as I see it, is in getting active participation at the product design and development level, and then following that up by engaging the organization's appropriate resources. Of course, that's in an ideal sense, and we all know that tradeshow traffic too can lead to distribution/license/alliance opportunities that can then materialize in the form of new products to market. And finally, seeing something at an international event frequently provides an opportunity for home market introduction (or knock off) especially if you have the ‘bucks’ to throw behind marketing. These last examples though don't produce ‘innovation’, or a true sense of synergy where the process expands so that one plus one truly equals three and an innovative concept is born.

In my Nutracon follow-up several weeks ago, I commented on the new aspects of applied technology rather than outright product innovation, which caught my eye. More recently there have been examples of ingredient combinations - both reaching the marketplace as well as being the subject of clinical studies.

Let's take a snapshot though of recent activities here in North America. From a product introduction standpoint, one might have expected SupplySide's VendorWorks format to lead to opportunities. Judging from personal experience and feedback from others, attendance at most of these forums was dismal, and when you consider the further dilution factor of competitors in the room, and then subtract media (although they are important for ongoing coverage), the vehicle failed to deliver a significant value in new business opportunities including upstream product development.

At Nutracon, as already mentioned, the content indicated (despite some new ingredient presentations) more the prospect of technological advances, rather than outright innovation. Nutracon has for years been trying to generate interest in technology transfer and in-licensing and it might be fair to say that the appropriate venue for that transfer has yet to materialize in this sector.

Now let's overlay the factors I mentioned earlier - declining budgets, proliferation of events and hence dilution of product development expertise and interest, technology, global economics and trade, and evolving value chain and relationships.

If we suggest that events such as IFT, Worldnutra, the New Products Conferences and Nutracon might be some of the best events here in North America at attracting and engaging product development people, yet acknowledge that either these events fall short of delivering the tangible value that is desired or required, or that it is impossible for the organization to appropriately participate in all of them, and engage all the people who should be engaged (internal and external to the organization), then new models must be developed. Furthermore, new communications pathways and record keeping strategies must also emerge. One of the ideal outcomes of the models, communication paths and record keeping is the emergence and growth of new communities, and this is where, I believe, innovation will truly 'goeth'.

We're seeing the slow steps as value propositions are being solidified in Web seminars (Webinars). We're also seeing some on-line communities emerge, and the reluctance of stakeholders to participate in these forums diminish as they recognize the value of these modes of communication and participation. We're seeing the emergence and use of innovation tracking tools as technology is applied to intelligence gathering. We're seeing a growth in smaller, more intimate events designed to deliver more one to one dialogue opportunities. We're seeing strategic programs implemented to introduce company 'x' to concept 'y' offered by company 'z'. And we're seeing companies and individuals realize that what has been the pattern of the past will not work in tomorrow's shortened product domination lifecycles and increasing sector convergence, if not overlap.

My (grossly imperfect) crystal ball tells me all these things will continue. Getting ahead and staying ahead through innovation are prime business directives and that will never change. The tools to enable this are changing though.

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