In his new IEEE-USA audiobook, Do Your R&D, author Harry T. Roman makes it clear he believes in the value of R&D; and that all too often, it falls victim to aggressive accountants or short-sighted leaders. He is also clear who he believes corporate R&D should emulate — Thomas Edison. Roman argues, “The most important invention Thomas Edison gave us was not an invention at all. It was the process of inventing, the codification of the discrete steps to take a raw idea to a commercial product.”
Roman goes through the seven-step systematic innovation process Edison pioneered:
- Identify a problem worth solving
- Evaluate market needs
- Identify constraints and challenges
- Test potential solutions
- Validate invention
- Market the invention (now a product)
- Develop and improve the product
Roman explains that Edison oversaw as many as 30 or 40 teams at once — matching people, talents and resources to solve problems. He had as many as 250 people working on R&D — spawning more than 30 companies, which employed 10,000 people. His conception of an “invention factory” developed into today’s team-based corporate R&D. Roman knows his Edison and his R&D. He is an advisor/author to the Edison Innovation Foundation and a docent/special lecturer at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, in West Orange, NJ. He also spent 36 years at PSE&G, New Jersey’s largest gas and electric company, working in R&D and new product development where he directed and consulted on more than $100 million worth of projects.
IEEE-USA’s new audiobook, Do Your R&D, is available to IEEE members free at IEEE-USA’s online shop at https://ieeeusa.org/shop/.
Roman notes that in 2020, the United States spent more on R&D than any other country, followed by China and Japan. However, this investment has varied greatly by industry — with less than one percent of revenues going to R&D for utilities (non-competitive, not known for innovation), to as much as 20 percent for pharmaceuticals (very competitive and where innovation — like a new vaccine — can be worth hundreds of millions for the bottom line).
Roman asserts that companies do not become great by cutting costs, and rarely from making the “big deal.” Rather, he notes that the great companies of today — Tesla, Apple, Google, etc. — are great because they invest in R&D and produce breakthrough products. The author stresses that successful R&D is not just solving a technical challenge — it needs to be tied to producing something people want. Roman concludes, “To do R&D right, you must know where you are going and why; and what technologies you intend to use to get there. It is part of the strategic planning of a company, using its intellectual property and specialized knowledge to project its competitiveness out into future markets.”
Roman warns that R&D must remain focused on the long-term strategic needs and direction of a company and not fall victim to cost-cutting or achieving next quarter’s results. After deregulation, telephone companies slashed R&D budgets, thinking that cost-cutting was key to surviving in a newly competitive market. It turned out innovation and new product development were much more critical; and soon, the companies were collectively spending more, not less, on R&D — than before deregulation.
And R&D must be patient. Roman notes that according to Du Pont, it takes about 164 new ideas to create four good ones. He notes many R&D efforts fail — not because of technological challenges — but often because of interdepartmental conflicts. He stresses the importance of strong cross-department teams, and early buy-in from all around an organization.
Roman gives practical advice for anyone managing R&D projects: read industry articles regularly; understand how an R&D investment can earn back its investment; look for open and flexible solutions; and ask for help, when you need it.
Roman ends the book with lessons learned from his own experiences concluding, “It is not what you know that is important, but what you can do with what you know that positions the company in a strategic position in the marketplace!”
Paul Lief Rosengren is the coauthor of In the Time of COVID: One Hospital’s Struggles and Triumphs, which received a 2021 Best Independent Book Award in the medical category and Hedy Lamarr – Inventor Extraordinaire and Hollywood Star, published by IEEE. He has a Masters in Public Policy from The Kennedy School of Government, Harvard and an undergraduate degree in political science from Dickinson College.