The Innovation Game: Using the power of intrapreneurship to advance breakthroughs in large enterprises

Monday February 10, 2020 0 comments Tags: Isabel Yang, Advanced Energy

By Isabel Yang

Chief Technology Officer and Senior Vice President

Advanced Energy

In a recent article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the author makes a bold claim, stating that “the vast majority of the innovations that have most impacted society were conceived of by employees, not entrepreneurs.yang-mug.fixed

"While it may seem hyperbolic, it’s absolutely true when taking into consideration the author’s further explanation that most of these employees pursued their breakthrough ideas later in life and inside large organizations, many driven by a passion to make a difference."

Early in my career, I was asked by a very bright engineer why our company chose to buy technology via acquisitions of other companies -- usually startups that had become profitable -- rather than innovate from within by commercializing the organic R&D work?

At the time, I did not fully comprehend the many variables that go into the buy vs. build decision, which includes time-to-market, a company’s presence in that market, the cost factor, talent availability and more.

Since then, I have gained tremendous insight, recognizing that, in the world we live in today it is not enough to be surrounded by people with lots of great inventive ideas.

We need something more to propel us forward to gain market share and establish a foothold in a white space.

People often mistake invention for innovation, but they are not synonymous.

American entrepreneur Gifford Pinchot III eloquently stated in his book Intrapreneuring that “Innovation does not mean invention. Invention is the act of genius in creating a new concept for a potentially useful new device or service. In innovation, that is just the beginning. When the invention is done, the second half of innovation begins: turning the new idea into a business success.”

It is also not unusual for the very people who envision inventive new ideas to lack the hunger and drive to see their ideas through to the point of fruition, whether it is a new business or a new product.

In fact, it is likely more common for a project to start with a bang then drag on for a long time, with no sense of urgency or realistic understanding of the markets they are trying to enter or serve.

I believe this phenomenon becomes more acute as a company grows from an aging start-up into a large enterprise, as innovators often get caught in the corporate bureaucracy.

As most public companies’ boards tend to focus on shareholders, and shorter-term financial gain, innovation sometimes ranks lower.

Many experts agree, however, that solely focusing on the shareholder over the decades has resulted in the demise of what were once America’s largest corporations.

According to American Enterprise Institute, just 60 companies from 1955 remained on the Fortune 500 list in 2017, with 88 percent absent as a result of either bankruptcy, merger or falling revenue -- all of which suggest they were usurped by more innovative disruptors.

A term first introduced in a 1976 paper written by Pinchot and his wife Elizabeth, the word intrapreneurship was used to describe a system that removes the bureaucracy stifling new ideas in a large corporation to enable it to behave like an entrepreneur and a nimble, agile startup.

Today the concept is widely used by Fortune 100 companies as well as many international companies and nonprofits, with many examples of intrapreneurial discoveries in large organizations, from Sony’s PlayStation to Sun Microsystems’ launch of Java programming language in 1995.

But given the challenges of size, rigid structures, hierarchies and processes today, innovation in large organizations remains a relatively lower on the priority list.

As chief technology officer responsible for innovation at Advanced Energy (AE), innovation and customer experience have been the pull we see from customers in the U.S. and abroad where Advanced Energy continues to bring highly engineered, precision power conversion, measurement and control solutions to help customers worldwide with their mission-critical applications and processes.

As AE accelerates our capabilities to power the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are entering uncharted territory with the introduction of our newest intelligent power solution: PowerInsight by Advanced Energy.

Utilizing more than 30 years of expertise in power delivery systems in combination with data analytics and machine learning, this solution enables our services customers to improve their total cost of ownership and improve yield in their factories.

As we move forward, embedding self-diagnostic, self-calibration and self-learning real-time controls and digital twin into our products and solutions are no longer just R&D work.

As we move into the next industrial revolution, it will be essential to anticipate potential customer problems and develop ways to solve them before they occur.

More important, history reminds us that those businesses which foster an intrapreneurial culture not only reduce the risk of elimination in a high-stakes game where the rules are always changing but also are likely to set a new standard and a new set of rules.

About Isabel Yang

Dr. Isabel Yang is chief technology officer and senior vice president of Advanced Energy, responsible for leading the execution of the company’s global technology vision and strategy. Prior to joining AE, Yang served as VP of corporate strategy, and VP of strategy and operations for IBM Research, where she focused on driving leading-edge innovations in such areas as artificial intelligence, healthcare solutions, and high-performance computing. Prior to her strategy role, Yang spent several years in IBM’s Technology and Intellectual Property Licensing where she formulated strategy and execution for IP asset mining and licensing across broad technology areas including software, IT services, consumer electronics, computers and networking, semiconductors, electronic materials and healthcare and life sciences. Yang’s early years in IBM were spent in the Semiconductor Research and Development Center developing leading-edge technologies for memory and logic chips.

In addition to having over 20 years of industry experience, Yang holds multiple patents, has written extensively for more than 40 technical publications and was the recent recipient of Most Influential Women in Manufacturing Award as well as well Denver Business Journal C-Suite Award. Yang completed all of her higher education at MIT, receiving a bachelor’s degree in material science, a master’s degree and Ph.D. in electrical engineering, specializing in solid state physics and semiconductors.