Celebrating innovation in your own backyard

Posted by Cheryl Perkins on June 8, 2017

Have you ever stopped to think your next breakthrough product may be right under your nose? Or that ‘local’ could go very global with the right development support and customer-needs tailoring?

A few days ago I was engaged in a lively discussion with my LinkedIn contacts on the story I posted, Top 10 U.S. Cities for Corporate Innovation. Many were wondering why their cities were left out, and others rightly pointed out (as I did in my article), that innovation happens in both large and small cities; and on campuses from large universities to small technical colleges.  So I thought I’d revisit some of the interesting innovation stories I’ve covered in my own backyard from the heartland of Wisconsin. I hope you are inspired to do the same in your home state. Please share those with me in the comments section below!

I am invited to speak at many conferences across my state, including the Northeast Wisconsin Global Trade Conference in Green Bay. S.C. Johnson’s “Delivering Game-Changing Innovation” event in Racine,

I also gather frequently with leaders from many of our global corporations. Recently in Madison I met with innovation leaders from Motorola, Kimberly-Clark, Rockwell Collins Avionics, Viasys NeuroCare, Cardinal Health, Bou-matic and Applied Marketing Concepts at the PDMA (Product Development & Management Association’s Wisconsin Chapter) event. I also enjoy meeting with entrepreneurs at our annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee.

Closer to my own town of Appleton, Wisconsin, our entire team cheers when innovation is showcased. We have an outstanding example of that in our local Fab Lab housed on the Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) campus in Appleton. It was established in the summer of 2007 and the Fab Lab at FVTC  and became the 17th in the world!

I don’t know about your town, but here in my community we have a surprisingly rich history of invention and innovation. Granted, this region is one of the most patent-rich parts of the Midwest largely due to the intense patenting activities of consumer products companies like Kimberly-Clark Corp. (which usually gets more patents each year than MIT!) and Georgia-Pacific.

Still, I imagine that there are many inventive and innovative people working everywhere, but possibly not being recognized. Here are just a few of the innovations that have come from my small region (population under 200,000 people) in the past decade. The important thing to keep in mind is not just how these were patented, but how they were commercialized. Perhaps it will spark some ideas for you, too.

1. Carbonless paper and a host of innovations related to microcapsules applied to paper. Appleton Paper helped lead the way, developing the coating processes that allowed microcapsules to be applied to paper at high speed without crushing them. Recently Procter & Gamble licensed
Appleton’s encapsulation technology to apply long-lasting fragrance in microcapsules to laundry via Downy laundry sheets. Numerous innovative applications remain to be developed.

2. Cellucotton or creped tissue paper: the absorbent paper wadding material used as a wound dressing and then as the basis for Kotex feminine care products, invented by Ernst Mahler of Kimberly-Clark Corporation. This also led to Kleenex facial tissue and numerous related innovations, including anti-viral tissue, many innovations in processing and packaging, and eventually soft uncreped tissue (with about 50 patents protecting this significant advance in technology, the basis now for several leading products)

3. High performance disposable diapers were invented in the Fox Valley. Key innovations include the use of superabsorbent polymers to increase absorbency and a variety of structures for reducing leakage and improving comfort.

4. The world’s first test-tube tree, a triploid quaking aspen, cloned by Dr. Lawson Winton in April of 1969 at the Institute of Paper Chemistry. Genetic engineering of trees is now the basis for some of the world’s largest suppliers of renewable fiber, such as Fibria of Brazil.

5. “Packaging Container for Microwave Popcorn Popping,” by Tim Bohrer, Tom Pawlowski and Richard Brown of Fort James Corp., now Georgia-Pacific. This patent series led to development of the first microwaveable popcorn package which ensured more kernels would pop and that the package would expand to accommodate the popped corn. The invention was a huge success selling over a billion units per year in North America. The chemical deactivation technology also led to patented processes for products used by Kraft, Heinz, Ore-Ida, ConAgra, and others.

6. LiveYearbook. This is a startup company that is inventing new ways to provide long-lasting, dynamic yearbooks at low cost for schools and organizations. They were the first IT company and first Northeastern WI company to win the Governor¹s Business Prize Award (2010). The programming for this concept is being done here in the Fox Valley.

7. The famous enMotion® paper towel dispenser, the one that automatically delivers towel by waving your hands in front of it, was developed in Neenah by a Georgia-Pacific team.

8. A variety of papermaking advances have their origins in the valley, including Georgia Pacific’s foam-based tissue forming technology that was commercialized in France and novel fabrics for papermaking from Kimberly-Clark, Appleton Wire (now Albany International), and Asten Johnson.

9. Some of the most valuable advances in nonwoven textiles and fabrics came from Fox Valley inventors working for Kimberly-Clark Corp. This includes the foundation for many of the laminated fabrics that are used in medical gowns and other health care products, the soft webs used in diapers and many other products, stretchable nonwovens, and polymer-paper fiber composites.

So take a look both inside your company and your community, perhaps sponsor a talent search or innovation challenge. You never know — mining for innovation talent might unearth the next big thing! At the very least you will be giving your local economy a boost by creating opportunities.

 

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