Martijn van Welie (Philips) “Innovation isn’t a magic word, it’s working really hard.”

Interview: Christel Don, Photography: Frank Poppelaars.
Production: Hike One.
This article is also available in Dutch.

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with innovation managers in Dutch corporates. Follow us and stay up to date.
Martijn Van Welie, Head of HealthWorks Prototyping at Philips

Martijn Van Welie (44) is the first innovation manager in this interview series whose job title doesn’t actually include the word innovation. “I’d never call myself an innovation manager,” says Van Welie, Head of HealthWorks Prototyping at Philips since February 2018. “Truth be told, I don’t really know what innovation managers do exactly,” he adds. According to Van Welie, innovation is a process for which everyone is responsible. “A large part of the 74,000 people at Philips work with innovation in some way. What does a word like that actually mean?

Van Welie manages a team of ten people; from designers to web developers, mobile and back-end. When looking inside their office on Amsterdam’s Amstel Square, the first thing that stands out is a large reflective screen on the floor, leaning on a desk. “It’s one of the smart mirror prototypes that Philips unveiled at the CES fair,” explains Van Welie. “A smart mirror connected to all kinds of devices in the bathroom such as your toothbrush and your electric razor.” Sounds ingenious, but are people holding their breath for it? “That’s one of the questions our team is trying to answer.”

“Truth be told, I don’t really know what innovation managers do exactly.”

Complex ideas

You could say that Van Welie is right at the heart of innovation within Philips. His prototyping team is a part of HealthWorks, which helps other departments within the company with innovation by means of coaching and intensive, specialized training sessions. Next to that, HealthWorks is involved with promising startups working on things like artificial intelligence. “We already have departments in place, streamlined for classic product development, such as hospital equipment or the next toothbrush or electric razor, that’s our traditional business.” That’s why HealthWorks focuses on accelerating innovation in new areas such as digital healthcare. “We pick up on new products and services and investigate together with either a department or startup if such an idea can be brought to the next level.” That’s approximately 50 such projects per year, and about 10 of them that end up with Van Welie’s team. “Our prototyping team is another kind of sport,” explains Van Welie. “We’re there to help teams elaborate the practical side of their idea. Put aside all your nice PowerPoint presentations, revenue model flowcharts and target audience, and make it tangible by using a clickable prototype. How does your idea look like, practically? What do you want it to do? And then bring your prototype to your client to see how they react to it.”

Martijn Van Welie and one of the smart mirror prototypes that Philips unveiled at the CES fair

From idea to tangible product

Van Welie’s team tries to find out in a short time if ideas that look good on paper also work well in practice. These are often services with which care providers assist patients remotely. “Some questions we ask ourselves are: how do you set up such a service in a logical way? What does a patient need to do? What does the caregiver see afterwards and what kind of advice or support follows? And how do you make it beneficial for the patient?” By making prototypes the idea becomes tangible all of sudden, he says. “Above all, it provides concrete software that you bring to caregivers, that you can ask their opinion of, or if it works.”

We do these kinds of projects continuously, says Van Welie. “We make all sorts of prototypes, from clickable screens to full-blown working software. Because we often work with systems in which people’s medical information is collected and then assessed by a professional such as a nurse or specialist, we need to be able to really try out such a system. So, we can quickly build a prototype with the available technology so that we can see if the idea really works within a couple of weeks or months. Mostly there’s useful stuff in there but there’s a few things that need improvement as well. Exactly what Lean Start-up or Agile methods preach. Our team makes sure that you can take the steps towards making your success real.”

“In startups entrepreneurs often invest their heart and soul. You see this type of mentality less in bigger companies, though my team is very enthusiastic.”

Hard fighting

As team manager, Van Welie is closely involved in the technological side of all projects, “but I also help our clients prepare for their pitch.” The other half of his time is spent making sure his team can actually innovate. “There are many challenges that surround a project. Think regulation, financing and security. We often work with sensitive data, so we can’t just try something out. Everything needs to be documented while my team needs to continue working. I do the talking with security experts or legal departments to make sure the right people are convinced.” This also means that sometimes, Van Welie needs to fight hard to make sure the project his team believes in stays on the horizon.

Intellectual impatience

In startups, says Van Welie, entrepreneurs often invest their heart and soul. They work as though their life depended on it, leading up to a high level of innovation. You see this type of mentality less in bigger companies, though his team is very enthusiastic, he says. But Van Welie doesn’t believe that startups necessarily innovate faster. “Within Philips, you have all kinds of super smart people who can help you with anything, and then some. Still, there are always issues that you need to solve yourself and it doesn’t always go as fast as you wish.” For someone like Van Welie, the latter is sometimes challenging. “I’m basically a calm person, but I can sure be impatient,” he laughs. “If a project doesn’t go fast enough, I open my computer and go help. If we’ve decided that a project should be done in three weeks, then I do everything I can to make sure that deadline is met.” Van Welie is someone who needs a challenge every day, otherwise he gets really bored, he says. “I gladly take on challenges whose solution I’m not quite sure of yet.”

Breakthrough

Back to innovation, and what it means according to Van Welie. “Philips is already busy with research for more than 125 years, and we keep focussing more and more on specific problems that we want to solve.” According to Van Welie, innovation goes way past simply making things incrementally better. “It’s obviously a good thing that is the next toothbrush is even better than the current one, but that’s more evolutionary than revolutionary. Innovations are things that can truly change your life. With our new ‘Connected Toothbrush’, we can see how long you brushed your teeth. But wouldn’t it be even better if your toothbrush could tell you that the plaque on your teeth is entirely gone? Because, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? It’s going to happen eventually, but it’s going to take a while.”

“Most books and methods often imply that if you follow a determined path, things will work out. In practice, it’s more complex.”

Van Welie warns us about management methods that keep the focus on controlling what innovation should be. “Most books and methods often imply that if you follow a determined path, things will work out. In practice, it’s more complex: a process is useful up to a certain extent, but ultimately, it’s up to the right people, the right ideas, and the right timing. Smart, enthusiastic people who think in possibilities and can always see an alternative. Innovation isn’t a magic word, it’s working really hard. And mostly, it’s trying out things as fast as possible, because if you sit behind a desk for too long, you will lose sense of reality.”


Martijn van Welie

Current position: Head of HealthWorks Prototyping at Philips since February 2018
Education: PhD Computer Science at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (1996–2000), MsC Computer Science, with specialisation in Software Engineering, at VU Amsterdam (1991–1996)
Previous positions (selection): since 2008, various positions within Philips, such as Creative Director in Design, Head of Pre-development at Personal Health Solutions. Interaction Designer and Design Director at Satama Netherlands (2000–2008)
Favourite innovation book: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Essential gadget: Smartwatch van Xiaomi
Impressive innovation: Google Home, smart speaker


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