Qualcomm Stays Innovative By Mining Product Ideas From Its Global Work Force

Published in UT San Diego, March 30, 2015

What is a culture and how do you create one?

It has been said that culture is “a complex whole, which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law and custom.” OK, I’ll buy that, but how do you create one centered on innovation and invention when you have 31,300 employees in 198 worldwide locations? If you’re Qualcomm, you innovate and invent your own.

Meet the ImpaQt program. Launched in 2012, it is an initiative to empower all employees in all parts of the world to develop new product ideas within targeted areas. So far, more than 10,000 people have participated.

“Ideas are cheap. What is important is execution. Our goal is to provide the right environment to take something from your head to something valuable in the market,” said Navrina Singh, the head of ImpaQt. “We want the inventors to focus on their ideas and then my team can help them by identifying other team members and by providing the financial investment, the marketing and other resources to move the ideas forward.”

A product that provides surround sound-like quality on your mobile phone is available thanks to ImpaQt and Robert Dessert, a senior product manager at Qualcomm. Dessert joined Qualcomm in 2008 after the San Diego-based chipmaker purchased an Atlanta mobile commerce company where he worked. A few years later, he transferred to San Diego.

“My background was understanding credit card payments,” said Dessert, who explained that his first career was in architecture and design. He said that he has never written a line of code. “One day I happened to stumble into the Qualcomm Snapdragon room (a museum in honor of a Qualcomm Technologies chip). I love music, and I listened to a demo on headphones, and the sound was exactly like full surround-sound out of just standard headphones.” He had an “aha” moment. “I thought why couldn’t you create the surround-sound experience on your mobile phone?”

In September 2013, Dessert submitted his concept to the ImpaQt program. The initial feedback questioned whether it was technically feasible.

Still, his idea made it through the Silent Auction, during which inventors are able to meet one-on-one with business unit leads and executives who are asked whether they will sponsor the idea. By enabling individual sessions instead of a group meeting, the ImpaQt program is providing every sponsor an equal weight in deciding which projects should move forward or be tabled.

The next steps are resource allocation (organizing a team with the necessary skills), building the prototype, showcasing the idea to the entire company and finally deciding whether to integrate the idea into an existing product, create a product or shelve the idea completely. Just like in the startup racket, sometimes things don’t work out.

After his prototype was completed, Dessert and his team of three engineers pitched to a group of executives including Paul Jacobs, executive chairman and formerly CEO of Qualcomm.

“I handed the phone to Paul, he hit play and listened to the demo. He couldn’t believe it. He said Peter Chou (head of mobile phone giant HTC) needs to see this,” said Dessert. “Two weeks later, my team and I flew to Las Vegas to meet with Peter, his COO, CFO and head of engineering. I gave the spiel again and handed the phone to him. They wanted it integrated into one of their upcoming devices right away.

Since March, it has been available on the HTC One M9 smartphone.

In addition to delivering a stream of new products, ImpaQt provides participants with a deeper understanding of the product development process within a giant company.

“I learned that engineering is one small drop in the bucket of what it takes to build a successful product. Until I was involved with ImpaQt, I didn’t see product management and marketing in my daily job,” said senior Qualcomm Labs engineer Zach Rattner, 24.

Engineer Ashwin Vijayakumar, 30, said the experience helped him gain people skills.

“I learned the art of giving an elevator pitch to executives and business unit leads, in order get their buy-in for my proposal,” Vijayakumar said.

When he received feedback that his pitch lacked “oomph,” he spent a weekend observing new-car salesmen. “I noticed how they look us in the eye while talking, and they adjusted their pitch accordingly,” Vijayakumar said.

Rule No. 395

Cultured pearls of innovation are human creations formed by inserting an idea into a benevolent medium.

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