How to get, keep innovators

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At NPE earlier this year I had a conversation with an engineer in the R&D unit of a global polymer chemicals company. He had been there many years, had a wealth of experience and was well-compensated.

He asked if I knew of any opportunities for a person with his background. I asked the obvious question: Why would you want to make a move? His answer surprised me, but was repeated time and again with people in R&D in compounding, machinery, and processing.

His company, he said, seemed to be losing its desire to innovate. What he had observed was a gradual decrease in funding of projects, reduced patent applications, and an emphasis on the commodity end of the business.

The typical R&D person at a polymer company is creative and inquisitive by nature. Like most, they want to be fairly compensated, but that is not what drives their passion. To them, innovation is a new product or a change that adds value: longer life, better functionality, more sustainability.

Somewhere near the end of that list is “cheaper.” R&D aimed solely at driving out cost from an existing product do not really count in the minds of innovative leaders. Independent polymer consultant Mark DeMeuse of North Carolina has led research efforts for nearly 25 years for firms such as Celanese, Applied Extrusion Technologies and Celgard. DeMeuse notes “such projects often leave innovative people with an unsatisfied feeling, and can lead them to seek opportunities elsewhere.”

“Companies must continue to offer technically challenging projects that allow individuals to use their creative talents appropriately,” he said.

This isn’t a gloom-and-doom tale about how other countries are beating us in technology and innovation. For the most part, they are not. Apple Inc. was founded a mere 36 years ago. And Apple came a year before another little startup called Microsoft. One innovation can change everything, but there is no coasting when you are in first place. You cannot take your foot off the accelerator for a minute.

Plastics companies that want to attract and retain the top R&D talent simply must let their staff know that they are committed to innovation at all levels. New ideas do not only come out of the laboratory. The culture needs to support those who ask questions and realize that there is always a better way to do something. To that end, every company should have a chief innovation officer. If you are a small company it won’t be a full-time position, of course, but there must be a champion for innovation, an advocate.

“Unfortunately, due in large part to the current economic world situation, U.S. companies seem to be reducing the number of innovative projects and turning more to short-term cost-reduction efforts,” DeMeuse said. For the future of the U.S. plastics industry, let’s hope this is a near-term necessity and not a long-term trend.

Sturgeon is business manager for KLA Industries Inc., an executive search firm in Cincinnati.