This article originally appeared in Le Temps. Click to read the original version in French.
Smartphones, coffee capsules, digital music platforms: breakthrough innovations have no boundaries, changing the way industries operate. By making the existing obsolete, they give inventors competitive advantage over other companies. The fact SMEs cannot ignore. And while certainly not the easiest, this is the path start-ups should follow, according to innovation consultant Eric Fumeaux . “Managing the innovation process is much more difficult and challenging for SMEs. However, small and medium companies will have to concentrate on it more in order to survive,” Mr Fumeaux explains.
Produits Dentaires (PD) did not need this advice to leave its comfort zone. Last March, the company launched IrriFlex, a unique solution to improve cleaning and disinfection in complex root canal anatomies. The innovation immediately appealed to practitioners. As a result, PD plans to market two million units this year.
Looking at this 80-year old company employing little more than 50 employees in its Vevey headquarters, nothing indicated such breakthrough coming up. For the past decades the company’s business models remained unchanged: providing products based on the needs of its distributors. But the times changed. And consequently so did the business model.
With the arrival of new competitors and solutions they introduced, the third-generation owners Nicolas and Yann Gehrig decided to redefine the company’s approach to the products they make. Together with David Brendlen, biomaterials engineer in charge of research and development at Produits Dentaires, they launched the innovation process aimed at refreshing the company’s product range.
In 2012, they decided to review the existing product range. “I contacted Pierre Machtou, an authority in the dental industry in Europe. It clicked. Together we analyzed the existing product portfolio and agreed that PD needs to concentrate on endodontics, the branch of dentistry dealing with the prevention and treatment of dental pulp,” says David.
Conversations he had with dental professionals helped Brendlen understand that irrigation solutions available on the market were not satisfactory. This is where he saw the opportunity.
“He arrived with a very precise sketch,” recalls Pascale Van Landuyt, Innovation Advisor at Alliance which helps initiate collaborations between industry and academia. The company was next send to Haute Ecole Arc, which could provide the necessary technical expertise and skills.
For so far, irrigation needles were mainly made of stainless steel. A semi-rigid material which limited the gesture fluidity during procedures. Plastic was a promising alternative. David Brendlen recounts long months spent working on prototypes and finding industry partners. The management supported him, investing several million francs in the project, a considerable sum for a company of this size.
IrriFlex was finally launched in 2019. It is manufactured by Cemiplast, a new company opened by PD in Saint-Imier in the canton of Bern in Switzerland. This year PD will open a second production line to further boost the production capacity.
Those examples are still rare for SMEs in Switzerland. David Brendlen points out: “Family-owned businesses need to be capable of moving beyond their heritage and history”.
“Creating innovation means being able to think outside the box, erase the past,” says Eric Fumeaux. “It’s more complicated for a small company,” he adds.
And even if companies manage to overcome those preliminary obstacles, they’ll face other, such as limited resources and the necessity to enter into partnerships with other SMEs. “And certainly it’s not something typical for the Swiss culture,” remarks Fumeaux.
But it doesn’t mean SMEs cannot be successful. On the contrary. Small and medium companies are much closer to their end-users which means they can adapt to their clients’ needs and address their concerns almost directly. They’re also more agile and flexible when it comes to reacting to changing trends, explain the experts.
In the very center of each innovation process are extraordinary people ready to take risks, think outside the box and who can move the mountains to achieve their goals. Produits Dentaires can serve as an example of a SME successfully introducing and managing innovation processes.