The Importance of Culture, Comfort with Failure: Key takeaways from Crain's Most Innovative Companies Breakfast
October 31, 2019

The Importance of Culture, Comfort with Failure: Key takeaways  from Crain’s Most Innovative Companies Breakfast 

On October 24, 2019, Crain’s Chicago Business hosted its second annual Most Innovative Companies Breakfast at The Chicago Club.  Sponsored by Brinks Gilson & Lione, one of the largest intellectual property law firms in the United States, the event honored the city’s top innovators—including 44 Chicago companies named to the list, and those recognized as 2019’s ten most innovative companies in Chicago.

Photo Credit: Serio Photography -
Laura Lydigsen and Gus Siller of Brinks Gilson & Lione
Photo Credit: Anthony LaPenna

Event moderator Gus Siller, President and Managing Shareholder of Brinks, led the panel of executives from three of the top ten companies honored this year: Jacob Babcock, CEO of NuCurrent Inc.; Dr. Shao-Lee Lin, Executive Vice President, Head of Research and Development and Chief Scientific Officer at Horizon Therapeutics PLC; and Tom Wetsch, Chief Innovation Officer at Pregis Corporation.

After Brinks Shareholder Laura Lydigsen addressed the group, panelists shared insights into the key drivers of innovation at their companies and within their respective industries.

 Panelists Nick Beil of Narrative Science, Ashish Khanna of Aptinyx, and Bob Thurman of Wilson Photo Credit: Serio Photography
Panelists Jacob Babcock of NuCurrent, Inc., Dr. Shao-Lee Lin of Horizon Therapeutics PLC, and Tom Wetsch of Pregis Corporation
Photo Credit: Anthony LaPenna
  • The Right Culture Draws the Right Talent

While each panelist represented a distinct industry, all three stressed the importance of acquiring and retaining the right talent. No surprise there. However, they were quick to point out that having an established, inviting, and well-communicated corporate culture makes all the difference. And creating and sustaining a positive culture begins at the top.

“Leaders must define [the company] vision and articulate its mission in terms of what it is setting out to accomplish, and how they will accomplish it,” Lin said. “Current employees and prospective hires deserve to know what you are about and how you expect them to work together to achieve [the company’s] goals.”

The panel also agreed that retaining the best talent requires a company to recognize high-performing individuals in meaningful ways, and to provide them with nonlinear opportunities for growth and professional development.

  • Success Requires Comfort with Failure

While turning a profit is the ultimate goal for any business, making money in a competitive, innovative industry requires risk. And risk often brings failure. The key is to take calculated risks, and to support employees while they engage in it.

“We foster a culture of fast failure,” Lin said. “We want people to have healthy debates, to talk about how they’re going to move things forward rather than worrying about how they failed.” She added that it is important to remember that companies need to fail sometimes, and that acknowledging and correcting those failures quickly are part of every leader’s job. “Employees thrive when they are encouraged and rewarded for taking calculated risks. Resilience comes from admitting our failures, then getting back up and trying again.” Over time, she said, the cycle becomes ingrained in a company’s culture, and everyone realizes it’s OK to fail.

  • Great Minds Think … Differently

All three panelists cited the importance of diversity of thought and culture in innovation. In particular, Babcock emphasized that having a healthy culture doesn’t simply mean everyone in the company is friends. Instead, a healthy culture is an outgrowth of clearly defined and articulated core values. Only when a company knows what it values can it effectively recruit and retain individuals who prioritize those values in their own work, even if that is all they have in common.

“When we recruit people who are driven to work in the ways our culture requires, and who truly want to help us accomplish our mission,” Babcock said, “the result is layered talent made up of people with different backgrounds, from different generations, and with varied skills and approaches.” It’s these differences, he said, that make his business thrive, because it is unhelpful for everyone to be thinking the same way. “That’s the opposite of innovation,” he said.

Maintaining a diverse pipeline is also critical to cultivating a variety of viewpoints. Wetsch shared that Pregis achieves this is in part by offering ten to twelve annual internships that not only help inspire young people to pursue careers in technology, but also helps Pregis reap the benefits of an outsider’s perspective.

  • Focus on the Problem, then Protect the Product

Because obtaining patents can be a slow and complex process, all three panelists agreed that the smartest way to prioritize developing and protecting ideas is to focus on the problem facing the customer.

Babcock said that his company focuses mainly on problems—and making sure they address only those of the right magnitude and significance to their customers—rather than beginning with an eye on the final product or a potentially patentable outcome.

His team begins by asking, “Is this idea customer-driven? Will it solve a significant problem? Is it already out there in some form?” It’s those answers, he said, that drive their business. He also pointed out that focusing on the problem rather than on an “invention” allows his team to remain open to solving problems from a variety of angles, as opposed to steering themselves down a pre-determined path toward a pre-conceived solution.

Pregis takes a similar approach when determining which patents to protect. “We want to know: Where are the issues? Where is the need?” Wetsch explained. “Once we have the answers, we can aim to innovate today and protect and sell tomorrow.”

  • Remain Open

Limiting where a company looks for ideas will only stifle innovation. The panelists emphasized that opportunities for innovation are everywhere, and noted that companies are shifting away from seeking new ideas from in-house sources alone.

“Ideas can and do come from everywhere,” Lin said. “Some incremental, some immediately transformative. The key is to remain open to them.”