Maumee, Ohio — The way that William J. Schalitz tells it, Spartan Chemical’s door to innovation first swung open with a phone call. As vice president of research and development for the middle-market janitorial solutions firm, Schalitz received a voice mail invitation to participate in a so-called open innovation program with the State of Ohio.
“We went back internally and said, ‘Hey, look, this door has been opened to us — what problems do we have right now that we can’t solve ourselves, or at least solve very efficiently?’” explains Schalitz, who notes that what made the invitation particularly memorable was that it came from a third-party consulting firm — which claimed that it was willing to work on Spartan’s behalf for half price.
Apparently, the consulting firm known as NineSigma had been awarded a grant with the state as part of a program dubbed the Ohio Third Frontier Open Innovation Incentive. Under its grant agreement, NineSigma —a firm specializing in innovation — could actively engage middle-market firms (ranging between $10 million and $1 billion in annual sales) across the state and incent them to take on innovation challenges by having the state agree to subsidize half the cost of an estimated $25,000 engagement.
“We quickly came up with two concepts that we thought could test-drive NineSigma’s capabilities,” explains Schalitz, who says that one of the ideas involved a dispensing device that could for the first time move the 55-year-old firm beyond the realm of chemical compounds.
“We put both concepts to NineSigma, and they shortly assigned a project manager, who asked for two lists: What are the desirables? What are the ‘nice to haves’? Then they took this information back and refined it into a search request,” recalls Schalitz.
According to Schalitz, NineSigma’s technology search is a kind of vetting process designed to help gauge the viability of commercialization in a competitive market and illuminate different approaches and potential partners.
“The wealth of information that came off the search was almost shocking. I don’t know of any other vehicle I could have used to reach out and find a tenth of the information that has come back on these two searches,” says Schalitz, who adds that Spartan has already green-lighted its dispensing technology and is planning a tentative product launch date for next October or November.
Says Schalitz: “This will be technology that we own and that will allow us to be a cost leader in an existing segment.”
What’s more, other Ohio companies could soon benefit from Spartan’s pursuit of innovation.
“We’re now engaging local mold builders and local injection molders, so the business scope of this offering is larger than Spartan and impacts the local community,” reports Schalitz.
As for the second concept, Schalitz describes it as being more closely related to the firm’s traditional chemistry offerings. Here, too, Schalitz credits NineSigma with lengthening Spartan’s line of sight.
“This now involves technologies from other fields that our normal supply chain not only wouldn’t have been able to show us how to apply within our industry, but also would not have even identified for us to begin with,” explains Schalitz, who notes that the chemical offering, unlike the dispensing device, faces certain regulatory hurdles before commercialization becomes a possibility.
Asked how he views the price tags for the two NineSigma searches, Schalitz comments: “I can almost correlate it to spending another $100,000 on a piece of analytical equipment. It just opens up this enhanced ability that can be brought to bear on an opportunity.”