Being the General Manager of TomorrowLab, Steven Peleman knows what is important for the creation of innovation in companies and organizations. Bringing people together outside their companies and helping them to develop new views of their existing innovation organization make a good start. Getting them to take more chances is even better.

TomorrowLab is a consulting company and innovation catalyst, headquartered in Belgium. The main activities are conducted in the ultra-modern House of the Future, just north of Brussels. The house itself is the home of the Living Tomorrow project, which enables companies to co-innovate and introduce products that improve people’s lives. asked Steve Peleman a series of questions about they work they do.

What is the most important innovation related issue for big companies?

The presence of intrapreneurs; entrepreneurial employees with the drive and the conviction, that pushes them to risk their careers. They are scarce, because although there are many people that know that they need to do risky things – coming to the point of actually doing them is a different story. Many people can and will come up with new ideas, but only a few will take them to the next level.

What are the most common problems experienced by your customers?

When we asked some of our partners what were their biggest obstacles to innovation, more than a third answered that time to market was too long. Other obstacles include inadequate external collaboration and lack of coordination. Against this context, we have identified four basic focus areas and two different types of innovation management support – Fast Tracks and the 360° Partner Program.

What are Fast Tracks and the 360° Partner Program?

Small and medium sized enterprises (SME) often talk about innovation without knowing what it really is, how they can exploit it and work with it. For them, we have devised Fast Tracks, which is a module-based programme in practical innovation. The modules are very specific and well-defined areas of innovation management: Start to innovate, Start to exnovate, Start to synergize, and Start to score. The questions covered are very hands-on, and include, for example: ‘We have not innovated for 24 years, what should we do?’ And: ‘How do we innovate in collaboration with others?’

The 360° Partner Program is an innovation program conducted over two or three years. Depending on the partner’s situation, it starts in one of our four defined quadrants: Visions, Lab, Experience, Research. We provide partners with tools suited to different situations. They include SWOT analysis, game theory principles and how to find the right partner. We also help with marketing strategies.

What is your track record?

TomorrowLab’s activities started in 1991, since when, over 300 companies have used our services. A lot of our partner companies and organizations are global players, but we also deal with SMEs. We have a staff of innovation experts and a couple of very specialized freelancers and partner organizations that are connected to our community. Most of us are former or part-time entrepreneurs with great practical experience.

How does TomorrowLab’s approach make a difference to a company’s innovation ability?

We take people out of their normal environments and put them in inspirational contexts, such as the House of the Future, which motivate them to think and act differently. We often act as door openers, since we are a neutral partner. Ideas are usually not the problem, there are often lots of ideas, the problem is finding ways to profit from these internal ideas and combine them with the vast amounts of knowledge outside the company. In order to come up with disruptive innovations, it is necessary to look outside the organization. An internal focus usually results in only incremental innovation.

How important is it to experience a new location in order to get the ‘innovation spirit’?

When dealing with specific in-house knowledge or linear and straightforward innovation, it is fine to stay inside the firm. But if you want to see actual open innovation, it is good to visit and experience creative environments. These visits will often trigger a process of ideas and knowledge associations and socialization with unfamiliar industries, technologies or people. When we bring together 10 or 15 people and show them around the House of the Future, it is noticeable that they immediately begin to share ideas, and this is used in the subsequent workshop. The demos get people thinking, and the possibilities are endless once they start elaborating on the ideas.

About Steven Peleman

Steven BA Peleman is General Manager and co-founder of TomorrowLab with Joachim De Vos and Frank Beliën. He also founded the serial entrepreneurship holding company, Corporate Hurricane, and the technology start-up Triple Helix. He is also co-founder and member of the board of Exnovate – the European Centre for Open and Collaborative Innovation. Steven is on the boards of several high-tech start-ups and supports various creative economy initiatives. Steven has a Masters Degree in Business Engineering and is working on a PhD in Open Innovation Metrics for Cluster Innovation. Before becoming an entrepreneur and innovation practitioner, Steven Peleman worked for local SMEs. He is also an experienced alpine ski racer.

These are some of the projects in which TomorrowLab researchers have been involved:

Case 1: The intelligent mirror

The intelligent mirror combines multiple functions, aspects and innovation partners. The physical concept is a collaboration between mirror manufacture, electronic appliances manufacturing, software applications development and medical/paramedical stakeholders.

The mirror displays vital body functions that are measured by means of a touch button sensor in a toothbrush. The mirror shows what medication to take, when it should be taken, and how much. It can be connected to an intelligent blister pack or to pills with integrated biodegradable RFID chips to ensure that the correct medication is administered. The mirror can support multimedia interaction and entertainment.

Case 2: The kitchen of the future – the Smartboard

The kitchen of the future is the combined effort of a thermoplastic materials supplier, a top designer/architect, electrical appliances manufacturers, LED lighting specialists and a company specialized in distributing fragrances. Physically, the kitchen provides the full functioning expected of a futuristic kitchen. For example: damaged surfaces are easily remolded due to their thermoplastic characteristics, touch controls are supported by LEDs that can be inside a transparent surface layer, etc. In addition, the kitchen is equipped with the interactive features and tag readers required to provide information on the items stored in its cupboards, and storage conditions and allows stock management through entry on an interactive smart board or swiping the ingredient/article in front of a shopping card on the fridge touch screen which has an integrated RFID reader.

Case 3: The wellness cocoon

The wellness cocoon was developed with a Belgian radiator/heating manufacturing company using an innovative approach and philosophy. The cocoon was designed for a child’s room and is equipped with all the toys a child would appreciate. It is now is being used in hospitals, bedrooms of children and adults with allergies, and in airports where the acoustic dampening characteristics of the shells allow for better relaxation between connecting flights. Thus, the initial idea has been exposed to and elaborated on by many partners from very different industries.