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ITRI President Jonq-Min Liu

Accelerating Innovation, Making Elephants Fly


Accelerating Innovation, Making Elephants Fly

Source:Kuo-Tai Liu

Named a Top 100 Global Innovator by Thomson Reuters, the Industrial Technology Research Institute's (ITRI) capabilities have won great acclaim. Yet for the elephant that is ITRI to take off and fly, it must innovate more and faster.



Accelerating Innovation, Making Elephants Fly

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 567 )

Hamburgers, corn soup, and salad are spread out on a square white table. Other than the conference table, the room is completely bereft of any other appointments.

Prior to commencing a lunchtime interview, Dr. Jonq-Min Liu, the newly appointed president of the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), repeatedly exhorts his guests, "Go ahead and eat. Eat first, talk later." By the time these few words are uttered, he has consumed two-thirds of the hamburger in his hands and begins clearing the paper cups and plates off the table.

After establishing his credentials as a fast eater, when he gets to talking about ITRI's future, in addition to the buzzword "innovation," he also stresses "going faster."

Coming off a five-year purple streak of innovation, in addition to garnering 16 R&D 100 Awards, known as the "Oscars of innovation," alongside Mediatek, ITRI made Thomson Reuters' Top 100 Global Innovators list for 2014.

Liu, who took over the reins of ITRI from Jyuo-min Shyu when the latter moved up to a Cabinet-level post as Minister of Science and Technology, is preoccupied with innovation. Beyond innovation, he stresses speed. "I think this is how ITRI can better exhibit its capacity for action on the organizational, structural, and systemic sides," he says.

Liu's life is so closely connected to the Industrial Technology Research Institute that the two are practically synonymous. After returning to Taiwan upon obtaining a Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University in New York, Liu held successive teaching positions at Fu Jen Catholic University, National Central University, and National Tsing Hua University before entering ITRI in 1984 as an engineer at the Materials Research Laboratories. From there he began a steady ascent, becoming general director of the Material Research Laboratories, then Organic Materials section chief, deputy director, and director. In 2010 he became the Institute's executive vice president, assuming the top position as ITRI president this past February.

Many of the people he has led and mentored over the years have gone on to illustrious careers throughout the high tech field. In fact, the successes have been so numerous that they are sometimes collectively referred to as "Liu's Army," including Epistar Corp chairman, Lee Biing-jye; the late Giga Solar and Gigastorage chairman, Chi-jen Chen; Gigastorage president, Tsai Li-chuan; Asia Electronic Materials chairman and vice president, Chien-hui Lee and Chin-hsing Chin; and Astron Materials Corporation chief operating officer, Kar-Fen Chien.

Everybody that has worked with Liu knows well that he is a practitioner of the "silent leadership" school of management. In fact, so laconic is he that Epistar chairman, Lee Biing-jye, has gone so far as to say "he doesn't talk."

Since he lets his actions speak more than his words, no one can recall him ever getting upset and raising his voice. And when he encounters difficulty, he likes to go back to the fundamentals to think things out. "The good thing is that it is easier to choose the right direction, because in research the worst thing is to go off in the wrong direction," notes Lee.

Innovation Starts from Within

In Kar-Fen Chien's eyes, Liu is not only good at giving orders; he is especially adept at challenging subordinates.

Back when color projectors first came out, the expected lifecycle was around seven years. Liu assigned Chien the task of flying to the U.S. and Japan to stand on busy street corners and observe the goings on, and attempt to anticipate future product trends.

"I had never been abroad before, and it frightened me out of my mind," recalls Chien. A graduate of National Taiwan University with a degree in history, she started as an administrative assistant, working her way up to become Liu Jonq-Min's top aide. After years of seasoning, she went on to become a capable business woman.

Liu had a good read on the future of innovation and entrepreneurship early on. In 2003, when innovative start-up ventures were just beginning to make waves, Liu, then general director of the Material and Chemical Research Laboratories, came to Chien – then head of the Planning Office, eager to discuss the imminent arrival of the knowledge economy. He stressed the necessity of creating products with added value, and encouraging the R&D team to found their own startups.

"Let's do it together," he said. To which Chien replied, "If I'm going to do this, I want it to be my full-time job."

Without much additional discussion, Liu quickly set up an incubation department. Despite having a staff consisting of only Chien and one other person, it was established as a level-one unit directly under the auspices of the laboratory.

"Now that we'd dived in head-first, it was time to harden up and swim," says Chien. She says she will always remember that particular afternoon when she and Liu stood in a hallway facing a large central atrium, where Liu described his ideals and aspirations for promoting startups. He emphasized that they should stick with it, even if everyone else felt they were bucking the trend.

Liu led the way, setting up the structure and urging staff members to venture out and start businesses. Instead of accepting technology transfer funding, ITRI could redeem technical stock rights; nine years hence, five different companies have been founded as an outgrowth of that venture.

"This is also a key to ITRI's transformation," says Liu. Seeing the success of new startups, research personnel are more willing to start their own businesses, making the Institute more attractive to premium talent, and perhaps turning ITRI into an exceptional organization.

Cooperation, Meshing Resources

With innovation well along the way, Liu is preoccupied with picking up the pace.

Liu knows very well that technology is ITRI's most vital resource, making the modularization of technology their top priority, along with intellectual property rights, to form an open innovation platform. This involves setting out from the standpoint of market demand, then quickly piecing together internal and external resources like a puzzle.

Puzzles require cooperation, and under Liu's leadership, ITRI stresses cooperation with backbone enterprises, the international community, and the academic realm.

Regarding backbone enterprises, Liu relates that, whereas in the past ITRI would autonomously develop technology before approaching appropriate firms for technology transfer, today the Institute's Industry Service Center proactively identifies businesses, and analyzes corporate strategy, needs, and the challenges they face. Based on this knowledge, it attempts to mesh enterprise's capabilities and ITRI's resources to develop future products, whilst establishing long-term innovation partnerships with backbone enterprises.

Taking on a market that places a premium on speed, businesses ranging from Formosa Plastics to Aurora and Delta Electronics have embarked upon strategic partnerships with ITRI.

Internationally, ITRI's cooperative programs with international businesses were worth NT$650 million last year, and the institute is aggressively working to broaden its Silicon Valley connections.

Additionally, "It's similar to how school laboratories make prototypes that are far from complete in terms of the viability of production or reliability," relates Liu. He believes that ITRI can focus its energies on making the most basic prototypes into products customers can use. As one of Taiwan's vital R&D bases for technology development, ITRI cannot afford to overlook cooperation with the academic community.

Be it quick puzzles or open innovative platforms, Jonq-Min Liu admits that market connections must ultimately be made, while R&D must transition from a need-based to issue-based orientation, thereby obtaining the capacity to "resolve small issues, forge small value; resolve big issues and forge big value," he asserts. However, for elephants to fly, even tougher challenges must be confronted.

"ITRI's impact on domestic industry over the past 15 years cannot be underestimated," notes Lee Biing-jye. Despite constantly stressing innovation, the government's financial support to industry has remained stagnant over the past decade (at around NT$9 billion), holding back industry's R&D energy. Meanwhile, Academia Sinica's R&D funding has leapt from NT$4.5 billion to 10 billion over the same period.

In another respect, ITRI's salary structure is too far removed from the private sector, making it unattractive as a career choice for skilled personnel.

Alex Peng, general director of ITRI's Office of Strategy and R&D Planning, admits that salaries for entry-level personnel at TSMC and Mediatek are around 30 to 40 percent higher than at ITRI, and that the gap only widens beyond a certain level of seniority.

"It is especially a shame when people arrive at a certain level of achievement, only to get recruited away," laments Peng. There is a dearth of high caliber personnel in R&D, so critical to the development of domestic industry, Peng says, and ITRI cannot compete with domestic private industry for the best local talent, let alone international talent.

For Liu, who has been working towards the same objectives for three decades, now is the time to seize the day and test his mettle, for the upcoming battle could very well prove critical to the future of Taiwanese industry.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman