All eyes were on Dr. Alessandro Dani when he took to the stage at the banquet hall of the Zollverein event center in Essen. Seated before him on colorful stools were some 200 of his colleagues, who were waiting to hear his presentation. He began his talk enthusiastically. His goal? To excite his listeners about Blue Lithium—a process for recycling the lithium in old batteries. The idea is to develop a selective membrane that would provide an economically attractive means of separating lithium during the recycling process. His talk was persuasive: the jury and the audience all voted for his idea, making Dani the company’s newest entrepreneur. The project manager now has one year to make Blue Lithium a reality—an opportunity that will include a six-figure budget and a sabbatical from his previous duties. What makes this project so special is that Dani has all the freedom of a startup founder but without any of the business risk: the company’s support is guaranteed.
The internal idea competition
The four-person team won the Entrepreneurship Award and Dani is now the fourth Evonik entrepreneur. “The award is an important part of our culture of innovation,” explains Chief Innovation Officer Dr. Ulrich Küsthardt. “We use the award to strategically foster a culture in which people dare to try new things and aren’t afraid of making mistakes. The abilities to learn quickly, work efficiently, and form networks are the most important requirements of our entrepreneurs.”
Before Evonik saw Dani as that kind of entrepreneur, the 31 year-old Italian had to complete an internal application process. The company began accepting online applications in January, offering an intranet platform for any Evonik employees to present their ideas on nutrition, home design, or mobility. Employees submitted 82 ideas this year alone. And anyone who did not have an idea was welcome to comment or recommend proposals from other employees, or they could join the team for a given idea. “Inspiration from the team was a key factor throughout the entire process,” Dani reports. “Working within a team meant we could share what we know, draw on insights from others, and form new contacts. Experts from a variety of fields worked together on the teams: chemists, financial experts, marketing specialists, and Supply Chain employees—they all wanted to support us.” Brainstorming online also meant that participants could share their thoughts across international borders, with employees contributing ideas from 27 sites throughout the world: 13 ideas came from China, ten from the US, and ten from India.
Once these ideas were collected, a team of experts sorted through them to find the most promising ones and invited the contributors and their teams to a three-day workshop referred to as Bootcamp. “When they make their selections, one of the areas that the team of experts focuses on is the concrete benefit to the customer. Ideas have to fit in with Evonik’s strategy,” says Küsthardt. “No matter how good or promising an idea looks on paper, without a market or customers it won’t become an innovation.”
Bootcamp was where the teams were able to work intently on their ideas, with in-house coaches helping them develop these into a business model. Participants narrowed the focus of their ideas and spotted weaknesses until they had a basic framework for a business plan. Specifically, that means answering certain questions: What value and benefit does the product create? What needs does it satisfy? What problem does it solve? “At Bootcamp we carefully examined the entire value-added chain. It was great to see how the idea developed over such a short period of time,” says Sabine Kuznik, who works in strategic and organizational development and who was present as a member of the Blue Lithium team. “That really brought us together as a team. We wanted to win the award.”
Their role models were the winners from previous years. In September 2018, for example, Dr. Matthias Lamping began working on ColorPaste—a white toothpaste for children that turns blue over time, dyeing any plaque residues that brushing did not remove and leaving them blue. “Being able to spend a year as an entrepreneur within the company is a huge opportunity for me,” he says. “The deeper we dive into the subject, the more experts we get to know who can help us move ahead, both personally and professionally. On a personal level I learned lot during this time.” His idea has since become such a success that he is now pursuing it within the Silica business line.
For Dani, his win is just the beginning of his Blue Lithium work. Now he has to make good on implementation: “I’ve got an exciting year ahead of me. Blue Lithium is a great project, and it has the potential to make it on the market,” he says. “We’ll make mistakes, but we’ll also be able to learn a lot. Fortunately, we’re getting a lot of support from all over the company.”