How Corning Focuses R&D Efforts and Sources Ideas

By Scott Kirsner |  November 26, 2018

Few companies can claim an innovation track record as historic as that of Corning— the company not only developed the glass enclosure for some of Thomas Edison’s earliest light bulbs, but also created one of the first corporate research departments, in 1908. Corning went on to create Pyrex, the fiber optics used in telecommunications, and the ultra-tough Gorilla Glass that is a key part of 4.5 billion mobile devices.

“Innovation is critical to Corning’s identity and sense of itself,” says Christie McCarthy, Director of New Product Realization in Corning’s life sciences division. “It really is who we are.” About 2,000 PhDs work at the company’s Sullivan Park Research & Development campus near Corning, New York. “We have a critical mass of ideas and research in one place. It feels a little old-fashioned these days, but it really works for Corning. It really forges tight bonds.”

InnoLead spoke with McCarthy at the recent R&D 100 Conference in Orlando; she previously worked in the company’s Emerging Innovations Group, an internal incubator for new concepts and businesses.

Explaining the 345 Model (above): “At Corning, we have three core technologies: ceramic science, optical physics, glass science. We have four manufacturing and engineering platforms. And we have five market access platforms, loosely aligned with the divisions of the company: mobile consumer electronics, display, automotive, life sciences vessels, and optical communications. Most of the company’s R&D funding goes into projects that fit into at least two of the columns [on the 345 chart.] About 20 percent goes into stuff that is a little risker, and might fit into just one column. We’d have to see that having a really high return, potentially, if we’re going to take the risk — for instance, like leveraging our automotive platform to go and start making tires. It has got to tie back into somewhere we can really add significant value.”

Innovation Requires Patience: “There’s a quote from former Corning chairman and CEO Jamie Houghton:

Investing in R&D was like a religion…something you did on faith, in good times and bad.

There was one blip in the 1970s where we were investing less in R&D, but historically the percentage stays between 8 and 10 percent of sales. After the decrease in the 1970s, in the 1980s, they saw an impact on the pipeine. So there was this reinvigoration in funding R&D in the 1980s that has stayed in place. Innovation requires patient investment, but patient investment is hard. You get challenged at every turn — everybody wants a return, faster and faster. You have to sell that story [of why long-term investment is required] to Wall Street and the investors really well.”

The Limits of the Stage-gate Approach: “We still use the stage-gate process within Corning quite a bit. But stage-gate can be slow, and it can involve applying too much rigor. What this new growth innovation framework (below) is doing is answering a need, where you’re trying to build a new business, and stage-gate can be too constrictive, especially in the early days, where there’s a lot that you need to learn.”

Four Places New Ideas Come From: “We may have our own invention from the R&D organization, a customer request, an internal business analysis, or a request from an existing business group. We talk about ‘technology push’ versus ‘technology pull.’ If a customer is wanting something, it’s much easier to sell. You can have a very elegant value proposition built on all the reasons why this product should work. But if the customer doesn’t care, then it doesn’t matter.”

Discover, Develop, Scale: “In Phase 1, you test assumptions, learn what you can, find out what you don’t know. You want to have more looseness early, so you don’t potentially strangle an idea that could be powerful. You want to be giving it room to grow. As you move it to Phase 2, you’re expecting it to crystallize a little bit more, and be getting more structured. You want to bring the customer in. You may need to pivot little bit. The stage-gate process didn’t always make you feel comfortable with all that. Phase 3, scale-up, is a place we’re putting a lot of emphasis. How do you effectively integrate manufacturing early into the innovation process? If there’s process innovation you need to do, that can present problems for scale-up, [as can] design for quality in markets where the FDA regulates us. You don’t want to have to go back and redo that, and have it slow down a launch. You don’t want to say, ‘Now we’re handing it off to manufacturing. You guys run with it.’ It’s about partnering a lot sooner.”