The innovation reality


In the public sphere, innovation is too often discussed in terms of the next groundbreaking technology or product that will single-handedly shape the human experience. We look at end products and assume they’re the result of giant leaps, straight lines, or eureka moments. At research institutes like RTI, the innovation reality is quite different. For us, innovation follows deliberate paths that require commitment to strategy, perseverance, and collaboration.

For 60 years, we have embraced innovation on these more practical terms. And in so doing, we’ve improved the human condition for people around the world. Our scientific achievements include, among so many others, advancing research in cancer therapeutics and biomedical addiction and drug abuse, improving the air we breathe, and bringing literacy to millions of children in East Africa. Last year, our experts in fields as varied as maternal and child health, unmanned aerial vehicles, and food security, to name just a few, implemented nearly 4,000 projects around the world, satisfying 1,200 public- and private-sector clients.

While dedication to our clients’ needs may seem, inherently, to conflict with the time and resources required to innovate, the give and take among our scientists, clients, and external partners has increasingly become a process of co-creation that revs our engines of innovation. Together, we learn from each other, and the relationships we’ve developed across sectors serve as catalysts that broaden our scientists’ perspectives and teach us new techniques—giving us valuable information that opens the doors for innovative ideas, technologies, and projects in the present and near- and long-term future.

The closer we work with our clients and the more partnerships we form, the more innovative ideas we execute. For example, our commercialization team recently turned forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera research conducted for the Department of Defense into a spinout for the online inspection market—a great example of providing an innovation for one sector, altering that innovation to help it solve a totally different problem in another sector, and finding widespread interest in the innovation.

For another RTI commercialization effort, the policing sector provided feedback to our scientists on a geographic information systems analytics product. Our scientists took what they heard, changed their product, and are now helping chiefs of police and law enforcement officers better manage, understand, and learn from their existing data. This effort will help agencies work more efficiently while also improving how communities are policed through evidence-based and empirically driven results.

Like many other research institutes and tech companies, we see organizational culture as a huge factor in helping us be innovative. As an organization of 5,000 employees worldwide, one of our central challenges has been knowing what each other is working on so that we don’t duplicate efforts as we attempt to solve the world’s complex challenges. In the past several years, we have been developing frameworks and strategies around innovation that encourage communication among our scientists, foster the sharing of ideas, and demand more leadership action in response to those ideas.

Instead of focusing solely on new products and services, we’re also refocusing on the skills and behaviors that underpin being innovative, including decision-making. An integral part of successful innovation is deciding when to move in new directions and spend available energy on promising ideas and when to stop devoting resources to areas that may be productive for your organization, but lack the impact size you desire. Our dedicated innovation experts constantly challenge the assumptions we’ve built up over many years and decades of successful work, asking the important question: “Is it time to stop working in one area and explore another?” This question can be a painful and difficult one to confront, but answering it moves us closer to fertile territory where innovative solutions and ideas can be pursued.

If asked to describe RTI’s approach to innovation today, I’d call it persistence of vision. We honor our scientific discovery past, look to the possibilities of the future, and incorporate them into our present. We recently established our own innovation lab—Lab 58, to honor the year of our founding, 1958—to help us focus on high-risk, long-term innovations. The work currently being done by Lab 58 allows us to enhance current projects for clients while making commitments to future innovations such as artificial intelligence or blockchain technology.

Scientists come to RTI and stay at RTI because of our mission to improve the human condition. This mission has been the defining factor of our organization for the past 60 years; it will continue to define us for the next 60 years. As we grow as an organization and expand our influence around the world, maintaining our focus on innovation will be critical to fulfilling our mission and to ensuring the well-being of the clients, people, and communities we serve.