The power of innovation

Besides turnover and profitability as critical hygiene factors, successful enterprises understand the importance of innovation in unlocking the potential to grow and compete effectively.

FOR innovation to mean something to any enterprise, it starts with the leaders and employees having the end in mind and challenging the status quo. Leaders who are open-minded would ask: What does innovation mean to our business in the short and long term? What are the gaps in meeting customer needs and market demands, and how can we serve them better? Where are the growth opportunities and how can we tap into them? What does it take in terms of time and resources? Who else can we partner?

Good leaders are also able to break the concept of innovation down to what makes most sense and is relatable to the business. This often requires thinking differently, pushing existing boundaries, looking outside the box and learning from others.

INNOVATION AS A DIFFERENTIATOR

Firstly, let's consider innovation as a differentiator. Most businesses operate in a highly competitive environment. In a fast-changing and digitally-enabled business environment where new competitors and solutions can emerge almost anytime and anywhere, Singapore enterprises need to differentiate to compete successfully. If we do not, many might be at risk of being obsolete and left behind.

By leveraging innovation as a differentiator, enterprises need not limit themselves to competing on the basis of price, size or years of establishment. It is about raising the quality and offering innovative products that keep customers coming back for more.

To do this well, gaining customer and market insights and understanding their pain points are extremely valuable and critical in the innovation process. Capturing data on the customer's purchase experience is a powerful way to spot current unmet needs and bring about innovation opportunities.

Innovation allows us to invent and harness new technologies that can enhance the value of our existing products and services, sharpening our competitive advantage. It is also about finding better ways to improve day-to-day business operations, adopt solutions to enhance efficiency and unlock new value. What matters when we consider innovation to differentiate is to acknowledge that it is often an aggregation of taking small steps over time and not always about big, grand ideas.

INNOVATION THROUGH PARTNERSHIPS

The second perspective is about innovation through partnerships. Enterprises need not embark on the innovation journey alone or begin from scratch using internal resources. Instead, consider striking partnerships with like-minded industry partners who have complementary strengths and skill sets.

To enable this, enterprises could embrace open innovation. The concept of open innovation is one where small and large enterprises from across industry, innovators and technology translators from research institutions and Centres of Innovation (COIs), and the government come together to share problem statements and allow technology or solution providers to offer ways to address them. This partnership has the potential to quicken the problem-solving process and reach out for diverse skill sets - creating a fertile ground for industry-pull innovation.

In our effort to support open innovation opportunities, the eight COIs established by Enterprise Singapore with polytechnics and research institutes help companies translate research into commercially-viable products and services. It bridges the gap between industry and technology needs through the co-development, pilot-testing and market validation process before going to market.

For example, in the logistics sector, the process of submitting import and export permit details to the Cargo Community Network is highly manual and prone to human errors. The Logistics Alliance first raised this and with the support of Enterprise Singapore and the Republic Polytechnic's Centre of Innovation - Supply Chain Management, they identified a solution and a logistics company UT Ways to embark on a pilot project to automate and streamline the process. UT Ways has since digitalised the process and observed a 60 per cent reduction in time required per permit submission, leading to manpower savings and reduced human inaccuracies.

In another example, Apollo Aquarium, a home-grown enterprise in ornamental fish farming, partnered the Environmental and Water Technology Centre of Innovation (EWT COI) to develop an automated re-circulating aquaculture system for land-based fish farming. The system enables Apollo to maintain its water quality for intensive fish-farming operations. Since then, Apollo has exported its land-based fish farms to Brunei, China and other markets.

Enterprise Singapore's Gov-PACT initiative supports government agencies to develop and test-bed innovative solutions that are non-existent in the market. Through public calls for proposals, it opens up opportunities to discern solutions from the market. Participating companies get to go through different stages of product development from ideation to pilot runs. This encourages the spirit of co-innovation and helps enterprises build their internal capabilities.

INNOVATION FOR SCALABILITY AND OVERSEAS GROWTH

Thirdly, when leaders are clear of how innovation can differentiate the business and have a plan to get started, they are on the road to discovery. Innovation has the power to unlock the potential for enterprises to compete and scale-up effectively locally and internationally.

Innovation and internationalisation often come hand-in-hand to help enterprises succeed on the global stage. Given Singapore's small domestic market, venturing to overseas markets is the way to go. In an internationalisation survey we conducted in 2017, companies' growth in overseas revenue (4.8 per cent year-on-year) is outpacing local revenue growth (2.1 per cent year-on-year).

Enterprise Singapore has different types of financial and non-financial assistance for businesses at various stages of their overseas expansion journey, ranging from market seminars, business missions, and network of in-market partners in major cities to supporting capability development projects.

Last but not least, what makes innovation scalable and capable to fuel overseas growth is not technology alone but the people.

Talented, driven and self-motivated people want to work for enterprises that value ideas, innovation and take pride in offering solutions that disrupt the limits of today and define the future. Innovation is not a choice but an attitude towards making a difference.

  • The writer is deputy chief executive officer, Enterprise Singapore