When a manufacturing company is the world leader in its field but looking to evolve, it actively needs to search for new opportunities beyond its established markets. ln the case of world-leading automotive and technical ceramics specialist NGK SPARK PLUG, the introduction of a bold new ‘open innovation’ concept looks set to become a blueprint for fresh thinking that will secure the company’s future business in new, environmentally led directions.

ln the past year, on three continents, its experts in automotive parts and advanced technical ceramics have been meeting up with prospective business partners to discuss technological advancement in a range of sectors – from automotive and medicine, to the  environment and energy.

They are meeting at purpose-designed ‘Venture Labs’. The first one was founded in 2018, quickly followed by inaugurations of ail three Venture Labs the subsequent year. The centres are intended as hubs for collaborative, creative technical thinking, that also provide an inspirational showcase for some of the company’s latest innovations. Situated  in Tokyo, Japan; Silicon Valley near San Jose in the USA; and Paris, France; the three  Venture Labs embody the progressive approach to business development that has increasingly been taken by NGK SPARK PLUG in recent years.

New horizons

According to Damien Germès, Regional President EMEA, President & CEO NGK SPARK PLUG
EUROPE and Corporate Officer, it’s a global initiative that is designed to become one of the key origins of future company expansion.”By establishing these Venture Labs we are opening up fresh horizons on new markets where we can make a valuable contribution,” he confirms. “The automotive industry is currently undergoing a disruptive change, propelled by globalisation, electrification, digitisation, competition and environmental regulations. We therefore want to contribute to a sustainable society by creating new businesses in sectors with potential for future growth, such as next-generation vehicles, medical care and environmental energy. Our Venture Labs are helping us to reach that goal.”

Complementing this, the Venture Labs have a mission to propose and implement concrete business system enhancements for NGK SPARK PLUG worldwide, such as reducing the risks surrounding product development and shortening the time-to-market.

Fresh thinking

lnvolving other, invited established businesses, as well as start-ups and stakeholders in brainstorming and research is key to the concept.

Craig Tibbetts, Vice President Venture Lab, NGK SPARK PLUG Inc. puts this into practice at the Silicon Valley location. “The Venture Lab is far more than these physical venues,” he confirms. “lt,s also an organisation within NGK SPARK PLUG, with the mission of developing new business pillars through collaboration and partnership. We as a group are dedicated to this effort full-time, acting as a bridge between start-ups and our company.”

lnspiring locations

The wide-ranging regional locations of each Venture Lab, Germès adds, were equally carefully selected.

“So otten long-established companies lose their mental flexibility, effectively blocking new ideas. To find the best, original solutions we wanted to let in fresh air from different geographical regions and perspectives.”

As a result, the company sought areas with a well-developed business eco-system known for encouraging venture capital start-ups, ‘accelerators’ that focus on scaling existing companies, and ‘incubators’ that nurture innovation for growth. “That’s why we set up in Silicon Valley, Paris and Tokyo,” affirms Damien Germès. “They are ail brimming with pioneering companies and advanced universities that attract talent and creativity from across the world.”

Speed of change

The Venture Lab concept also brings another surprising advantage: it thrives on speed. “Innovation is otten perceived as a slow process. But the ideas proposed at our Venture Labs can be fast, lightbulb moments. Because we are supplementing our own technologies and skills with outside resources, we can create new investment businesses very quickly. If a project seems interesting, we might take steps the same day!” says Germès.

Whilst it remains early days for outcomes from the Venture Labs, NGK SPARK PLUG already has an impressive track record for applying its core expertise to new fields. For example, the company is a developer of solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) – a promising, sustainable alternative power generation system – and in 2019 announced a ground-breaking joint venture with other specialists to achieve successful SOFC commercialisation. Another innovation is Fenom PRO™, a non-invasive point-of-care breath analyser made by start-up Spirosure, that uses electrochemical technology to help hospitals spot airway inflammation in patients. ln Los Angeles, USA, NGK SPARK PLUG is also collaborating with another start-up, Neural Analytics, on an ultrasound system to measure and track brain health.

Every initiative selected, summarises Damien Germès, must meet some common criteria. “They ail need to make the best use of our technical know-how so that competitors cannot step in. Above ail, we must feel interested, and there has to be a strong purpose. lt’s clear
that our Venture Labs are already playing an invaluable role in this process.”