There is no Innovation Today Without a Digital Component & Vice Versa

Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is a leading science and technology company in the sectors of healthcare, life science and performance materials. In this interview, Dr. Christoph Huels, Chief Innovation Officer at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, discusses entrepreneurial thinking, strategy, ecosystems and culture in the digital era.

There is no consistent definition of innovation. Every industry and every department perceive it differently. How would you define innovation with respect to your position as Chief Innovation Officer of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany?

Dr. Huels: Innovation is a key element to drive organic growth in an organization and separates the leaders from the followers. If you want to generate business success from internal strength, skills and expertise, strong innovation is the answer. In that sense, we believe in Joseph Schumpeter’s classical definition, which connects innovation to business outcomes. In order to enable a different and appropriate environment for innovation, a dedicated Innovation Unit was created at our company. It enables a different culture and architecture to unlock unique innovation, and we specifically seek to innovate between and beyond our existing business sectors (Healthcare, Life Science and Performance Materials). In this way we aspire to build the next generation our company´s businesses.

What role does innovation play for your company in light of the trend towards digital transformation?

There is no innovation today without a digital component and vice versa. We therefore work very closely with our Chief Digital Officer and his Unit, which is dedicated to digital transformation. Both the Innovation Unit and the Digital Unit are part of a larger Strategy & Transformation Unit that allows close collaboration and coordination on such topics.

Your company has recently established an Innovation Center. What is the role of this center in your company´s Innovation strategy?

Our company’s Innovation Center is a substantial part of our innovation funnel in the Innovation Unit. It is the cultural and physical focal point of our company’s creativity. It implements our innovation toolbox of Think Tanks, Internal Projects, Accelerator programs, Academy trainings and workshops, company-wide ideation campaigns, and many more activities. These activities are used to explore innovation fields of strategic interest to us, to ideate within them, and to mature those ideas into projects with demonstrated proof of principle. We also strive to create new business in the Innovation Unit of our company that encompasses new business models as well as new technologies. Along this entire process we always have the best way forward for the projects in mind. At any point, the business sectors of our company may take the projects and drive them. And we also follow the aspiration to create a new business sector for our company.

How can you encourage multiple employees to actively engage in innovation? Is an innovation competition a good start to strengthen idea generation? Is it also suitable for business model innovation

Encouraging innovation and idea generation implies an actively driven process. We believe more in enabling innovation by empowering people with the right culture and architecture. Culturally, our company´s Innovation Unit acts as a social hub that connects our network of innovators, entrepreneurs, keystone champions, and supporting actors to each other. Within this community we create an environment with social norms that accept failure culture, spontaneity, iteration, collaboration, openness, and a meritocracy of ideas that is agnostic as to the seniority of those who propose them. We want to reduce hierarchy to give innovators the autonomy and space to pursue their ideas. We also want to strengthen communal trust to lower the barriers to proposing radical, still partially-formed ideas so that we can collaboratively develop them. What the proportion will be of technology-driven and business model-driven projects remains to be seen, but we are already seeing projects that innovate both in parallel.

In what way do you rely on open innovation and external partnerships for innovation? How do you integrate these activities with your internal innovation efforts at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany? 

We build relationships directly to centers of scientific excellence, to start-ups, to the venture community; and we actively scout for breakthrough technology developments and trends. From the start we are building access to rich primary information to avoid insulated decision making, which only leads to cognitive dissonance. We also collaborate closely with internal departments that also monitor market and technology trends. This set of information impacts our innovation efforts at multiple levels from the overarching innovation strategy to the individual projects.

What is your personal goal for the next year regarding innovation?

Since the Innovation Unit of our company was inaugurated just a few months ago, the goal for the next year is to define the organization, the governance, the interfaces and the budget going forward. Basically to establish the Innovation Unit as an accepted for our company, central innovation powerhouse for our company, and to drive projects forward to realize success out of imagination.


About Christoph Huels

Dr. Christoph Huels, Chief Innovation Officer of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. Christoph followed a career connected to successful innovation. He brings more than 20 years of industrial experience, ranging from CEO of a biotech company (Protagen), to leadership roles in Hoechst, Novartis and Merck. He worked in the industry sectors pharmaceuticals, generics, diagnostics, high quality GMP conform services, software development, life science tools, and speciality chemicals. He has general management experience in R&D, business development, marketing, sales, strategy development and implementation, venture capital, operational excellence always on a global basis. Christoph did his Ph.D. in immunology at the Johannes-Gutenberg-University University, Mainz and a coaching education at the Coaches Training Institute.

This interview was first published at Innoboard, a leading Innovation blog with a European perspective.