Q&A Ron Cox

For more than 50 years, the Center for Industrial Research and Service at Iowa State University has aimed to be a partner for Iowa businesses looking to grow in their communities. We asked Director Ron Cox what is changing for CIRAS in 2018 — and, by extension, what is changing for the businesses it serves.

How do you personally define innovation?

“Innovation” is a catchall word that can cover a wide variety of activities. To me, it means creating or adopting a better way of adding value to your customers that is new to your industry.

What’s the most challenging aspect of businesses trying to get an innovative product to market?

The greatest challenge can vary widely between industries and for different company sizes, but a common theme involves understanding the situation as it really is. Before spending a lot of money, what many companies first need is a better assessment of the true potential of the innovation. What are the potential revenues? What are the likely developmental costs? For small companies, the struggle may be having sufficient funding, gaining access to a large array of developmental resources, or the ability to penetrate new markets. All of these can limit the degree of innovation possible.

What was your first significant innovation, invention or process?

I had my first marketable innovative idea when I worked as an engineer in the defense industry in my early 20s. I came up with a way to bring two different aerodynamic mechanisms together to enhance the lift and reduce the drag of a maneuvering fighter. The two mechanisms had been around for decades, but they had not been combined in this novel way to address the aerodynamic issues encountered by an aircraft in a dogfight.

The outcome of that effort was a patent and a life lesson. The life lesson was that no matter how great your idea, a newer, more innovative product (in my case, stealth technology) could relegate your innovation to the scrap heap. You have to constantly be innovating to stay ahead of the competition, whether that competition is a new technology or another company.

What’s the best thing that happened to CIRAS in 2017?

The Governor’s Year of Manufacturing initiative, which began with a call for growing Iowa’s manufacturing GDP to $32 billion by 2022, was a great way to showcase the importance of industry to this state. The initiative helped CIRAS become more engaged with the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Association of Business and Industry, Iowa manufacturers and others on the development of a strategic plan for manufacturing in Iowa. We have now moved into the implementation phase, which is the fun part of the effort.

Professionally, what’s your top goal for 2018?

We have been developing a great partnership with the Iowa Lean Consortium (ILC), which is maybe one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa. They are an underutilized resource, and I am looking forward to working with their staff and their board to increase the membership, bring more speakers to Iowa, and enhance the interactions between members. I believe the Iowa Lean Consortium will be a critical partner for forward-looking companies that want to continue to grow but are constrained by our nagging workforce issues. I’d love to see the ILC membership double in the next 18 months.

What are some of the ways that CIRAS cultivates a culture of innovation among staff?
My daughter worked at a large, extremely innovative manufacturing company early in her engineering career. I remember the first thing her new boss had her do was read the book on disruptive innovation by [Clayton] Christensen. The company also had a program where employees could propose to spend a fraction of their time exploring a new idea that was not a part of their job duties. To me, it was sending a clear message right up front: The competition is innovating, we need to innovate, it’s the staff that innovate, and staff need time — so we’d better give our staff time to innovate.

At CIRAS I’ve tried to mimic this approach by providing sufficient professional development time to staff, encouraging new ideas and piloting a fraction of the new ideas. As I said earlier, small organizations rarely have sufficient resources, so we are constantly partnering with other innovative groups across Iowa State University, Iowa, and the country to bring new resources to Iowa businesses.

What are two or three of the most exciting areas of innovation that CIRAS is working on?
One of the most important things we are involved with is the digital transformation movement that is upon us. Industry 4.0. This is moving fast, and companies may need to be entering into elements of this arena before all of the answers are completely known. I think it is clear that some companies will be out of business if they do not change.

We will also be rolling out a new workforce initiative to deal with our age-old issue of attracting sufficient workers. This is not a new problem to Iowa. I looked at some old CIRAS surveys from the ’70s, and workforce was one of the biggest issues facing industry at the time. Here we are, nearly 50 year later, having the same discussions. Some of what is being proposed today was being proposed then. Is that innovation?

To substantially move the workforce needle, Iowa is going to need a disruptive change in how we think about workforce. We will be rolling out some new activities in this space that we think will spark some improvement for those communities and companies that embrace a holistic approach to the workforce issue. We are not doing this alone; a number of our key partners will be playing leading roles.

What policy challenges are on the horizon at a state or federal level that could affect your mission?

CIRAS exists because some wise people 55 years ago decided that Iowa communities are healthiest when they have healthy businesses. We were created to help these businesses — and most of them are small — find new ways to add value to their customers and to stay competitive globally. Any positive change in an economic policy or program that helps small businesses in this way will help our mission.

What areas of education or expertise are in the shortest supply, where companies can turn to CIRAS for help?

There are lots of opportunities to help grow Iowa companies and communities in Iowa. Needs vary by company and community, so we have always tried to target our services to the specific company’s needs. Depending on the situation, CIRAS staff and partners can help a company develop a STEM pipeline plan, become more efficient in their operations, learn about emerging technologies or access new markets for their products and services.

What do you see as the most pressing global innovation challenge?

The “most pressing” depends on the eye of the beholder. If you look at the National Academy of Engineering’s 14 Grand Engineering Challenges, you get a good feel for some of the toughest challenges we are facing globally and how we could dramatically improve everyone’s quality of life if progress is made on these challenges. A few items might be more urgent in other areas of the globe, such as access to clean water. Other items, such as preventing nuclear terror, likely will need a truly global effort to make headway. However, a few items are important right here at home, and Iowans should get more engaged in the near term. Cybersecurity is clearly one of these. Cyber threats are having a negative impact on some Iowa businesses today, and the issue is only going to get more important.