Making business impact through research | Sunday Observer

Making business impact through research

Fortinet crossed an innovation milestone recently. We have been granted more than 500 patents by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and have 240 patents pending.

The issued patents span a wide range of cybersecurity technologies, including IoT (Internet of Things), OT (Operational Technology), network security and cloud. All these patents go towards helping our customers stay ahead of the evolving threat landscape.

With this vast volume of patents accumulated over two decades, Fortinet truly leads the field in cybersecurity innovation. And I believe it’s fair to say we got here because we have been doing some key things right in the research department.

The research department is quite a unique department within a tech company. It is unusual in the sense that unlike most other departments, its goals can be vague and the destinations unclear. Time and resources invested into the department’s work may also not see a commensurate output in the near term.

The department’s work carries a moderately high level of uncertainty, and the eventual outcome of its projects can differ substantially from what was expected at the start.

In fact quite often, it’s not even clear at the outset how a particular research project would have the potential to create a new revenue stream, or even influence product or service. Yet if a company doesn’t take these leaps of faith to invest in research from time to time, it can never enjoy the fruits of innovation.

A company can also take heart in the fact that while not every research project will lead to an immediately marketable product or service, well-managed research is seldom wasted.

There is value in the skills picked up by researchers during the research process. Team building, creation of academic papers and peer recognition – all these are solid preparation for the next research project, which may result in a business boosting outcome.

Smart research execution

Here are some of the best practices when engaging in research:

Allow and even encourage researchers to fail. If you don’t do that, a climate where people become fearful of failure may form, and that means you have condemned yourself to only making safe − and most likely mediocre − bets. Such conservatism is deadly to the innovation endeavour.

Establish a clear link between research and business outcome/profit. Unlike academic researchers, commercial researchers can’t just write and publish papers. They need to stay close to business requirements, and be responsive to real-life implementation needs. Translating research findings into tangible solutions that bring revenue to the business is critical.

Learn to recognise inflexion points. A research project will necessarily move through different phases. Recognising and managing these transitions − which could require additional resources or guidance at different points − is key to success.

Another tip to remember is to make liberal use of young talent, and have a well thought-out plan to groom them. The research department is fertile ground for young talent to blossom.

In my experience, the most successful projects usually involve one or two senior people with the participation of several novice researchers. Such a model also gives young researchers the opportunity to grow and mature. Eventually, they will be able to undertake independent research, giving the company the innovative products they crave, while filling the pipeline of future research leaders.

Last but not least, when you feel you have reached your wits’ end and want to throw in the towel, consider staying the course. Patience and persistence have a strong correlation with research success. Sometimes, it takes a long time and much dedicated effort before truly innovative results are obtained.

Remember that research is a long term investment. It cannot be measured by quarterly revenue, but if done properly, compelling research can give a tech company an unassailable advantage, establishing a moat that competitors will find near-impossible to cross. This could well put your business in a sustainable No.1 position in the market.

Research is a fundamental ingredient to success in the tech industry. Dream big, work hard and persevere, and you can conquer the world.

The writer is the Founder, President and CTO of Fortinet. 

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