Mark Richardson had enjoyed his long career in R&D management at Smith & Nephew, but when he saw the opportunity to head up a new Biofilm Innovation Knowledge Centre he jumped at the chance to take on a new challenge, which would put his experience of collaborative research into a new context.
When Mark volunteered to be a guest writer for R&D Today we took the opportunity to ask him for his learning points as a practitioner.
Q How did you come to be in R&D Management?
I started out with a degree in microbiology, followed by a PhD in biochemistry in brewing at the British School of Malting and Brewing in Birmingham.
From this I got a taste for applied R&D and joined Smith & Nephew as a microbiologist. It is common in large organisations to have to move on to the business or line management side to progress, but I tried to keep as close to the science as possible. Organisations now often have dual science/management career ladders which are excellent at allowing scientists to progress without having to take on a people management role if that isn’t where their skills and interests lie.
A good move for me was when S&N relocated their R&D function up north to York, which was my home county. At this point I was given responsibility for a bigger group of people and got to sit on the S&N Science and Technology Steering board.
It was then that I was introduced to Rod Coombs, who was experienced in research, innovation and technology management; this was my first awakening to R&D being a discipline in its own right. Rod was also influential in persuading S&N management to bring in people to help us to improve our best practice, and I was exposed to this way of thinking. It really changed my own thinking. I didn’t need to start with a blank page in managing R&D/innovation – there was expertise and rich domain knowledge to inform my thinking. When I moved on to head up Global Wound R&D in Hull I started to use the process thinking and knowledge I had learned about in this environment.
One pivotal point in my career was in starting to develop technology strategy, roadmapping and forecasting in a structured manner to drive our open innovation, and we brought in Steve Bone and Peter Allen from nu-Angle to help with this. I worked on evolving this plan over the years to align technology strategy with business objectives. I became passionate about understanding and defining the unmet needs of our customers.
Q Did you have any training in R&D management?
No, it was more learning on the job and seeking expert advice. Particularly when I got the opportunity to do a significantly bigger job, running the R&D group globally for the Wound management business.
As someone that hadn’t actually worked in the new product delivery process, or at least only at the tail end of it, I was suddenly given this responsibility and needed to skill up quite quickly. I went through a period of deep immersion and I gained some advice.
I have worked with many of the big technology and management consultancies and this has been a learning experience.
Q What have you learnt about R&D over the years?
- Look for consultants with domain experience
I tend to look for people who’ve got domain expertise and tend to be part of a smaller group who are practicing themselves. I have been stung a few times where I met someone I really liked and who knew their stuff but then on Monday morning someone else turned up who seemed to have been ‘sheep dipped’ in a process – when what I wanted was the person who wrote it.
- Professional project management is beneficial
Once in position I did do some reorganisation to bring in professional project management, in particular stage gate and portfolio management, and that was very helpful in driving innovation forward in a managed way.
- Open innovation was a eureka moment
I read the first book about open innovation and this phrase jumped out: “There are more smart people that you don’t employ than you do”.
I wondered how on Earth you harness that and started to focus my energy on it by encouraging S&N to embrace open innovation and look for external experts to add value to our in-house teams.
- Differences in clock speed between the different functions in an organisation is problematic for R&D
One of the most frustrating things in being in a big organisation is that the half-life of an R&D process is much longer than that of a marketing project, so you risk getting pushed aside despite the support of evidence.
The biggest challenge, and probably the reason why I eventually left S&N, was that I always seemed to be explaining to new people why we were doing things as we did. I felt like I was pressing the replay button.
- You need senior management buy-in
A new CEO always wants to make a mark and change R&D, so it is not unusual to build up the core competencies over four to five years only for that CEO to move on and a new person come into the role – at which point the process starts again.
- You need to build management in two dimensions, or what I call ‘knitting’
Sometimes in an organisation you need to focus on ensuring line management/functional capability is strong, or sometimes cross functional project management, and as long as you don’t lose the learning from one dimension, it’s okay to focus on the other one for a while – but really you need to keep both going at the same time.
Q Why did you decide to join the Biofilm Innovation Knowledge Centre?
I decided that I was reaching a point where I should leave industry while I was still enjoying it, so I did, without quite knowing what I was going to do.
I spent a year working with companies and with the government research funding organisation Innovate UK, which led to the opportunity to establish a new Innovation Knowledge Centre (IKC) for biofilms.
This seemed a great chance to put my experience of open innovation and collaborative research into practice in a different setting.
The starting point for an innovation Knowledge Centre (IKC) is a technology area where UK PLC decides it has the ‘right to win’; that is, the country has sufficient academic, scientific and industrial critical mass to make an impact and there is growth potential in that sector.
For eight of these technology areas the research councils and Innovate UK have set up an IKC, which is in essence a translational hub, to bring together the knowledge and expertise that is out there and provide some money to make things happen.
There were already several centres of excellence in biofilms but their remits were quite specific and the academics don’t always know each other. For example one centre might know everyone in oral biofilms in the UK, but not the people working on biofouling on ships, which uses the same equipment or thinking.
Part of the frustration for industry when working with universities is that each requires a new technology transfer or new agreement, so we are there to make things easy. If a university joins us they have to sign a consortium agreement that establishes certain principles and standardisation makes it easier for industry to engage.
An unusual aspect of our work is that although a consortium of four core universities plus 11 others gained the grant, we want everyone in the UK with expertise to be part of the club. To enable this, we are encouraging all the relevant specialists to get involved, as well as outreaching to industry to ensure we get the offering to them right.
I’m doing this because when I was working in biofilms the relationship with the universities was unsatisfying. Often you went to people who were easiest to work with rather than the ones you really wanted, or sometimes you did not even know who the right people were!
Part of our vision is that when a large multinational company is looking to relocate its R&D facility or spend to be near a centre of excellence in biofilms they will choose to come to the UK.
We are also looking to stimulate the industry by encouraging the growth of SMEs, as they are the companies that drive employment growth. If I can find a winning product from an SME we could double their size, and that, to me, is an exciting challenge.