Each year, The Irish Times organises an all-Ireland competition for start-ups and established companies to highlight innovation – in products, processes and services. I have been honoured to be the Chair of the judging panel for quite a few years now. Its always an interesting event for me, because there are so many entrants from very varied backgrounds – medtech, food & marine, software, construction industry, fintech, media, services…. and somehow we have to pick an overall winner! I wrote this piece which was duly published yesterday.
I entered the drive at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham at 8am last week behind a huge articulated lorry. The truck, part of the construction crew for that weekend’s concert on the grounds, gingerly circumnavigated the flanks of the picturesque historic site. We eventually reached the car park at the rear, where a security guard assiduously engaged the truck’s driver before challenging me as to my role in the upcoming concert. He seemed perplexed when I told him I was there to judge innovation for The Irish Times.
On the hottest and longest day of the year, eight judges, two staff from The Irish Times, and I, as chair, adjudicated on the 2017 Irish Times Innovation Awards, in a sweltering upper floor room of the RHK. We will be publishing detailed profiles on each finalist in the coming months, with the winners announced at a celebration and dinner at the RHK in October.
The concert preparations continued outside throughout the day. Meantime, the 11 of us were the audience for presentations from the 21 companies across seven categories. While we had read each of their entry submissions beforehand, the live performances strongly influenced our impressions.
I believe that giving a company pitch and presentation should always be a performance. It is a concert, or theatre. We wanted to clearly hear the words, see the passion, and become excited ourselves. Inspirational presenters look their audiences in the eyes, rather than turning their back to watch their own light show on powerpoint and video screens. Clear presenters are audible, distinct and vary their tone of voice to communicate feeling. Good teams hand over seamlessly to each colleague, reinforcing the fervour and verbally playing off each other. There is a natural rhythm to a good presentation, through tone and timing, pauses and physical movement, and an opening, middle and triumphal end.
Audiences respond to great presentations. Despite the length of the day, despite the heat and despite the occasional distractions of audience smartphone notifications, passionate leaders can galvanise a gathering. The body language, facial intensity and eye contact of each listener guides the presenter, who can respond to these subtle signals and raise yet further engagement and interest.
It would not have been appropriate for our judging panel to applaud and cheer the really exciting presentations. We instead responded with a torrent of questions over which sometimes I, as chair, struggled to keep order and to our time constraints. The question and answer session thus signalled how well a presentation had gone. For the less engaging presentations, we sometimes had to work hard to try to extract the core value in the submission and then to seek verification of our own deductions from the presenter. For the powerful presentations, we immediately understood the key messages, and quickly moved on to explore the consequences and impact.
The day was genuinely interesting and every company fully deserved its designation as a finalist, regardless of just how engaging the live performance was. The content mattered, but the concise and inspirational communication of that content made our task easier.
We were keen to understand the essence of each innovation. A genuinely unique innovation, rather than a copy of something already proven elsewhere, would have a potential global market opportunity. We sought to understand what available evidence could verify that each innovation was viable, that a market exists, and that customers are willing to pay. We were also anxious to clarify that each innovation could be defended against better funded and established vendors already operating in the markets concerned. It would be disappointing if a company were to bring a new innovation to a market, quickly establish a solid beachhead of nascent customers, but then to have its early leadership swamped by a larger competitor, leap-frogging it to dominate the entire market.
When I reviewed the paper submissions before the judging day itself, I was surprised to find that I already knew several of the companies very well. In one case, I was even on the board of directors, although I had no idea in advance that the company was applying to the competition. Given the detailed knowledge I had of this and of several of the other companies, I took an early decision to recuse myself entirely from the judging process and so not take part in any of the votes. Rather instead and as chair, I ensured that the judges followed a reasonable and fair process in deciding on the winners. Each winner was decided by consensus of the judges, after due discussion and debate.
The concert stage was being completed in the RHK demesne as I drove away in the early evening. Public engagement, whether in art, science or business, is always a matter of confidence and performance. Innovators need to be able to master the message. The content must be of high quality and substantive, or else it may be misunderstood or overlooked if weakly delivered.