Nurture innovation, researchers urge

BAR HARBOR — Creating an institutional culture that fosters creativity ultimately can benefit human health through the innovative discoveries it generates, according to Edison Liu, president and CEO of the Jackson Laboratory.

Speaking at the “Creating a Culture of Innovation” conference presented by the Maine Center for Creativity (MCC) and the lab in association with the Maine Development Foundation, Liu said it is a priority at The Jackson Laboratory that the culture celebrate creativity. “Our core competency is research innovation,” he said.

Liu was joined on the panel by Steve Von Vogt, managing director of the Maine Composites Alliance, Kent Peterson, CEO of Fluid Imaging Technologies, and Renee Kelly, director of Economic Development Initiatives and of the Foster Center for Student Innovation at the University of Maine.

“It’s all about the people,” Liu continued. Everyone in an organization from top to bottom has to be willing to explore and be open to new thinking, he said. That takes discipline, an ability to listen and a commitment to succeed. “It’s not just one, it takes all three,” Liu said. Good leadership can make that happen, he said.

“Culture starts at the top. You either foster creative thinking or squash creativity with your policies.”

Along with leadership, another key factor in bringing people of diverse disciplines and experiences together is that “they all have to be experts,” Liu said. “Otherwise, innovation is schizophrenia.”

Talking about his company’s constant drive to create and market new products to keep from getting stale, Peterson said “we never go back to the same trade show with the same product.” Hiring the right people is the first step. “You need to determine their passion and interests,” he said. Employees have to know it’s okay if their ideas don’t pan out, he added. “They have to know that it’s okay to fail wisely,” he said.

Von Vogt said one reason so many Maine firms and institutions are so innovative is that they have no choice. “Necessity is the mother of innovation,” he said. “We innovate because we don’t have everything everyone else has,” he continued. Adversity also strengthens innovation, he said. “If everything is going well, it’s harder to innovate.”

He later added that it is up to management to recognize and reward the people with the best talents. “Innovation and creativity hide in places you don’t expect to find [them].”

In response to a question from a panel member, audience member Jay Friedlander, holder of the Sharpe-McNally Chair of Green and Responsible Business at College of the Atlantic, said that the school strives to integrate creativity into the curriculum. “You need to incorporate entrepreneurial innovation into the educational system instead of seeking it after graduation as an afterthought,” he said.

Kelly said that the goal of her organization is to partner with other groups, organizations and companies across Maine to improve the economy.

“From the start, we have wanted to build a culture of innovation throughout our state,” she said. “We are really trying to give students and businesses the skill sets they need.”

Liu said that far too many colleges and universities are resistant to structural changes. “There’s no reason that every university has to be for four years,” he said. “Universities should be sanctuaries of introspection,” he added. “Higher education needs to look inward,” he said.

Participant Kathy Warren noted that those searching for innovative employees need to look beyond an applicant’s formal education. “My concern is the poor ways we have to quantify people without formal education but who have advanced skills,” she said.

“You can’t get away from being measured,” Liu said. “What we need to do is create alternative paths to excellence.”

On Friday evening, Liu gave a presentation that was part lecture and part piano concert on the subject of art and the science of creativity.

Earl Brechlin

Earl Brechlin

Editor at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander editor Earl Brechlin first discovered Mount Desert Island 35 years ago and never left. The author of seven guide and casual history books, he is a Registered Maine Guide and has served as president of the Maine and New England Press Associations. He and his wife live in Bar Harbor.
Earl Brechlin

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