Olivier Usher’s introduction to innovation


5 mins read

Telescopic Tech Talks is our podcast. We’re exploring how organisations are experimenting with technology to drive impactful innovations. And we’re intrigued by the people behind the tech – inventors and innovators changing the world with their big ideas.

It’s why we recently asked Olivier Usher to join us for a discussion on innovation. He’s got an epic job at Challenge Works’, designing prizes aimed at solving the world’s most pressing issues, including climate change and poverty. Here are the major highlights of our enlightening chat.

The Challenge Works experience

Head researcher Olivier has been at Challenge Works for seven years and has worked on many impactful innovation prize competitions throughout his role. One of his favourites being a competition which ran besides Total Mobility Foundation (TMF):

“We were asking people to create an innovative piece of assistive tech. The challenge’s winner was a really talented inventor who was paralysed from a childhood accident. He created a deceptively simple wheelchair that responds intelligently to the conditions around it, adjusting its balance to make rolling easier on difficult terrain. I thought it was really inspirational.”

One thing that makes designing these challenges and prizes a great experience is the atmosphere at Challenge Works.

“It’s a bit like being at university, but minus the aggravations of being at university,” Olivier explains. “There’s an incredible level of intellectual freedom and we marry this with an entrepreneurial, hustling kind of culture. So, it’s a fun place to work for people who want to make things happen.”

What’s the main challenge of working in innovation?

When it comes to innovation, uncertainty is the name of the game. And it’s a long game. You’re never going to get immediate results. You just have to pray that things will work out. Or is there another, less hair-raising approach? Here’s Olivier’s take:

"You have to be comfortable with uncertainty. It’s the nature of working in innovation."

That told us! He also says: “We’re not focusing on what’s possible right now. We’re trying to set targets which are some years in the future. Which means there’s a lot of guesswork involved. All we can really do is come up with our best and most informed evidence-based estimate and then set targets based on that.”

How do you de-risk ideas?

Are there things you can do to minimise risk when faced with so much uncertainty? Olivier says:
“Speaking to researchers, experts and entrepreneurs in the relevant fields removes as much guesswork as possible when you’re taking an idea further.”

He also seeks input from those the innovation will benefit:

"We try to understand who the end-user is and what they really need. Like when we were designing the Mobility Unlimited Challenge. We got perspectives from people who actually use mobility assistive tech. They wanted a cool product that they feel happy, proud and excited using – in the same way that you’d feel when picking any other piece of tech."

“And that really kind of shaped our thinking in terms of: this isn’t a kind of medical device competition and it’s not a pure technology competition,” Olivier continues. “It’s a competition about producing a piece of exciting consumer tech that people will want to use.”

How essential is innovation for businesses?

In a word: extremely.

"Innovation is how businesses can get an edge on their competitors, improve their market share and set themselves up for future success."

Top companies in their industry know this. It’s why 62% of high-growth companies plan to invest in technologies that lead to higher rates of innovation, compared to 54% of other companies. What’s stopping the latter businesses from investing in research and development?

Olivier says that: “It’s easy when faced with competitive pressures of running a business not to bother putting the money and effort into research and development. Instead focusing on creating new services. You can get away with ignoring it for a while. But eventually somebody comes along and disrupts your industry, taking your customers away.”

What does the future hold for innovation?

Investing in innovation supports the economy, as Olivier highlights: “Innovative businesses thrive. If you can increase the amount of thriving businesses with employees who pay tax, it will help grow the economy. That’s one of the reasons we’re focused on upskilling and supporting innovators.”

But the world has changed rapidly in recent years. Many are feeling the economic strain. As the public sector budget takes a battering, this raises further questions for the research and development industry.

“I just hope that we don’t just see a massive cut in the spending that goes into research, development and innovation,” says Olivier. “While that can solve short-term problems of cash flow, it’s really not setting you up to emerge from a recession to thrive in the next boom.“

This is part one of our chat with the so-cool-we-get-nervous-around-him Olivier Usher. There are a few bits we didn’t cover here, so you won’t regret listening to the full discussion. And stay tuned for part two!