"Every time we add digital technology to hardware, it is like adding a nervous system to muscle and bone"

27 November 2019

Great tips for start-ups and a bird's-eye view of tomorrow’s world from Guido Jouret, Chief Digital Officer at ABB.

Guido Jouret, Chief Digital Officer at ABB

Swiss-Swedish ABB is a major global actor in the digital transformation of industry providing technologies and solutions in electrification; industrial automation; motion and in robotics and discrete automation.

ABB works across almost every industry. Which industries are at the biggest tipping point today? How and how soon will lives change as a consequence of their transformation?

We see the energy, transportation, and manufacturing sectors as undergoing the most rapid change. This is driven by a combination of external factors (e.g. shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy generation), technology (rapid progress in digital technologies such as AI), and regulatory/political shifts. We believe that ultimately, we are re-inventing the way our modern society operates. We’re moving away from large, centralised, infrastructure towards modular, connected, and distributed systems (read more here). This new infrastructure will enable a more sustainable, efficient, and healthier future for all of us.

What technology areas are currently most exciting to you and why?

The advent of AI, cloud, and new connectivity (e.g. 5G) are enabling the 4th industrial revolution. We’ve had computers in factories and plants since the 70’s, but these new technologies are enabling us to evolve from systems that sense and act to those that plan and learn.

Which innovation do you wish you had invented?

I wish I’d invented the artificial neural network (the foundation for machine learning). In the past few years we’ve seen tremendous progress in the application of this technology for image recognition, speech recognition, etc. As amazing as this is, the mathematical models of neurons that we’re using today are more than 40 years old, based on the crudest approximations to what biological neurons actually do. As we learn more about the physiology of the brain, we will develop even more powerful digital models of this nature and I expect we’ll see the technology improve by several orders of magnitude.

ABB’s technologies and solutions are at the heart of renewables and new sustainable business models. What’s the most positive thing going on in this space today?

We’re at the advent of the electrification of almost all forms of transportation. Buses, light trucks and vans are already cheaper to operate than fossil-fuel ones. Passenger cars are almost at this point. Long distance trucks, ships, and then airplanes will catch up as we either achieve higher energy-densities in batteries or find ways to run them using biofuels or hydrogen created from electrolysis (powered by renewable energy). This will help to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. The same is happening in power generation, where the cheapest form of energy is now coming from wind & solar. The next two areas we need to tackle are food & water. By 2050, we’ll have more than 10 billion people on the planet. We don’t have enough arable land (or even forested land) on the planet to grow food the way we do now. The solutions include growing food in 3 dimensions (vs. 2) using urban farming, lab-grown meat, plant burgers, and creating protein flour directly from CO2 (as Kiverdi has done). As the climate changes and average temperatures rise, many parts of our planet will become more arid. Access to fresh water will become critical. Desalination and water capture systems need to be developed now to provide water for future generations.

“Every time we add digital technology to hardware, it is like adding a nervous system to muscle and bone”

Will tomorrow look like today as far as the focus of innovation is concerned? Are you seeing, for example, a greater focus on innovations that reflect our ethics or a change in the way innovation comes about or is being managed? Is the image we have of a typical inventor changing or are there new geographic hubs?

The rate of innovation is accelerating. Compared to 20 years ago, innovations used to start in one part of the world (usually US or Europe) and then over years or decades they’d propagate to other regions. In the late 90s, there was a big concern about the “digital divide” and efforts were started to develop “one laptop per child” to promote the creation of low-cost computers that could be accessible to poorer countries. Most of these efforts were superseded by the rapid rate of technology innovation which made cheap smartphones, tablets, and computers available to billions. The challenge is that technology now moves faster than our laws or regulations. Every technology can be mis-used. This will become particularly important with autonomous systems, powered by AI, as these systems make decisions that can affect physical outcomes. In the past, most digital innovations came from Silicon Valley. Today, there are AI clusters in many countries, so regulating this technology will become particularly difficult.

ABB collaborates with over 100 universities globally. Are there lessons you can share on what makes knowledge transfer most successful?

One of the most successful models for technology transfer from the academic sector occurs when professors (and/or their students) set up start-ups to commercialise their inventions. This is how companies like Google got started here in Silicon Valley. These start-ups then either succeed on their own or get acquired by other companies. Either way, they diffuse their innovations into larger markets. This in turn, motivates the next generation of students to enter these fields and apply to the universities located in these “innovation hubs”. The most successful entrepreneurs can then invest in the next generation of start-ups by becoming venture capitalists and mentors. We’ve created an innovation hub in Sweden with Synerleap. We provide space for start-ups to get started, provide access to venture capital, and connect them with experts inside ABB who can provide insights into technologies or customer requirements.

More about ABB and university collaboration here.

ABB has a long and rich history in invention. Which innovations have marked the company the most?

ABB helped to drive much of the innovation in power semiconductors. These are chips that unlike those in digital computers that transmit information, these help to transmit electrical power. They’re at the heart of all kinds of electrical equipment such as inverters, circuit breakers, etc. Much of our modern electricity grid depends on this.

ABB also invented high-voltage direct-current transmission, which lets us send power over 2,000 kilometres with less than 1% of the energy lost in the transmission lines. This is a key enabler for renewable energies as wind and solar farms can be far from urban areas which consume the most energy.

Lastly, our innovations in robotics, including Yumi, our collaborative robot, which can work safely side-by-side with humans, will enable higher productivity by eliminating work that is dirty, dangerous, or difficult.

See ABB’s technology milestones here.

How is ABB ensuring its own evolution inventively speaking? What are you doing to stay creative?

ABB has a variety of programmes, starting with collaborating with universities, investing in start-ups, extensive trainee programmes to help accelerate the skills-development of top talent, and finally executive training programs that are designed to foster the flow of new thinking into the company. Our focus on digitalisation is creating an additional dimension for innovation as these technologies enable new ways to create and capture customer value.

How is ABB's approach to strategically leveraging intellectual property evolving? Is there advice you could offer others, notably SMEs, in this area?

In the past, industrial companies were highly “vertically integrated” and developed most of the technology in their products themselves. Given the accelerating rate of innovation today, we see partnerships as increasingly important to help tap into innovations in areas that fall outside of our traditional core competencies. A good example of this is the area of digital technologies, where AI, cloud, blockchain, and other technologies are evolving at an extremely rapid pace. By partnering with companies that are leading in these areas, we can bring the benefits of these innovations more rapidly to our customers.

(See 4iP Council’s educational resources 4SMEs).

When ABB assesses a company for investment, what catches your eye?

We first look for companies in areas that are adjacent to our current markets. Then we look for great technology and consider the calibre of the team. Investments are a great way to foster the likelihood that a company will succeed. Not only does the recipient of our investment gain a financial boost, but we often provide access to subject matter experts who can help share insights into technologies and customers.

More about ABB Technology Ventures here.

What specific innovations have really impressed you recently among the start-ups you have come across?

We’re particularly interested in start-ups that apply cutting-edge digital innovations to industrial problems. This can range from augmented reality to boost the productivity and safety of technicians operating machinery, or AI systems that let robots learn tasks more quickly, or analytics software that can create digital twins of machines and systems.

What advice would you offer an inventor today, drawing on the many successes and failures you have seen?

Venture capitalists in Silicon Valley look for three things in start-ups: market, product, and team. In other words, what market are they addressing? What product are they building? How good is the team? Successful VCs believe that of these three, the quality of the team is the most important. The most promising start-ups address the biggest of markets in the most pragmatic of ways. A big market is either a “pain point” or an “aspirational goal”. There’s another saying in Silicon Valley: “it’s easier to sell aspirin than vitamins”. Aspirin is a solution to a pain point the customer already has (it saves money, improves safety, or reduces delays/errors). A vitamin is a solution that tries to convince the customer that this is something they might want (but don’t yet need).

Do you have advice for policy makers in Europe on how they might want to view and accelerate innovation?

Europe has a tendency to want to coordinate and plan technology innovations. Setting common standards is an oft-stated objective for why government officials want to bring companies together. For many technologies however, industry collaboration, open-source communities, and other forums can be equally effective in fostering innovation. In a few areas, the lack of regulation can hamper innovation. Europe’s GDPR regulation has done much to provide protections for consumers and to provide clarity as to the obligations of information technology companies. In general, however, Europe can do more to ensure that ecosystems can emerge where a “virtuous fly-wheel” is created where universities foster the creation of start-ups, start-ups can readily recruit talent from inside and outside the country, regulatory burdens for small companies are minimised, and successful entrepreneurs are encouraged to “give back” to their communities by helping the next generation. Government can also help by being “good customers” of start-ups. All too often, procurement departments are risk-averse and only buy goods and services from large, established companies. If local government deliberately looks to source a certain amount of goods and services from local start-ups, this would provide those companies with early credibility and customers.

For someone just starting business school, what would you tell them about the importance of IP?

Innovation is a perpetual process - not some patents in a portfolio. In today’s world, ideas and technology flow rapidly around the world. If something is seen to be successful, it is rapidly emulated (or copied). By the time you can enforce some form of judicial ruling to assert your prior IP, it may well be too little, too late. Your best way to ensure the value of your IP is to create more of it - continuously.

“Your best way to ensure the value of your IP is to create more of it—continuously.”

And on healthcare …

How do you see the digital transformation of healthcare evolving?

Healthcare is consuming an ever-increasing share of our national resources. As populations age in Europe, Japan, China and eventually other countries, the rise in costs will only accelerate. We need to do more to help people stay well and to treat them more cost-effectively when they need care. We can’t do that by increasing staffing levels. Both will imply that digital technology needs to become an increasingly important part of healthcare: smart devices on our bodies and in our homes will help guide us to stay well by informing our food, activity, and lifestyle choices. For people with chronic conditions, these devices will ensure that we take our medicines when required and will monitor our key vital signs to alert someone when conditions deteriorate. In hospitals and clinics, robots will play an increasingly important part in surgery and patient monitoring.

What current innovations in healthcare / biotech are of particular interest to ABB?

We are applying robots in the pharmacies of hospitals. These can help with tasks such as dispensing medication. This is an activity that is error-prone when done by humans and is highly amenable to automation. In the future, we can imagine this to be extended to automatic guided vehicle (robots on wheels) who can bring medications to patients in their rooms, freeing up nurses and other hospital staff to focus on more value-adding tasks.

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.