You worry about how you smell, right? Like after a long day of work, a workout… etc. Now, there’s a platform, the High Accuracy Nose Assist (HANA), currently in development where you can actually see how you smell. The function is not the only thing that is interesting about HANA. It is actually a project of Konica Minolta Inc., the company prominent for producing multifunction printers and functional material equipment.
How is innovation nurtured inside of a major corporation?
Today we were able to go to the Business Innovation Center (BIC), a department created only 2 years ago, to learn more about Konica Minolta’s new business development department
—Thank you for your time today. Can we begin with a question about your company and BIC?
Konica Minolta is a company that was originally two separate companies, Konica founded in 1873 and Minolta founded in 1928, which merged into Konica Minolta in 2003. While we originally dealt with cameras and films, now we focus on office services with multifunction printer solutions, and have extended our services to commercial and industrial printing, health care and industrial optical systems, and even functional materials fields such as organic EL.
Our main business is the multifunction printer business. However, with everything going paperless, we predict a decline in demand for printing. With this changing environment, we realized a need for a service that can become our new backbone. That’s how we started BIC in 2014, to create new projects that are completely different from anything we have ever done.
—I see, that is how BIC was created. Can you tell me more about BIC?
In order to bring on innovation, we believe we need a diverse group of people from different backgrounds who understand that they cannot get caught up with Konica Minolta’s current services. That’s the reason why we gathered everyone in BIC from outside of our company and now, the team is made up of a group of engineers and marketers of all different fields.
Don’t rely on past examples.
—I am surprised to learn that no one is originally an employee from Konica Minolta. How do you plan on transferring your company’s technology to BIC?
Their mission is to create something completely new and innovative, so we do not expect them to use our technology and resources. Instead, we have an open innovation system where we cooperate with various partners. We at Konica Minolta believe this will be the driving force in expanding our realm of business.
—Wow, I’m very surprised. What kind of business does Konica Minolta think of expanding into?
What we are focusing on from our Tokyo base is global communication and life science.
In regards to field of global communication, we are developing products and services that allows for seamless communication regardless of language.
With life science, we have a translating service for foreign visitors using Japanese health services, and of course, the project HANA that lets you see smell.
100 Projects around the world
—What an interesting way to expand your business. Do you have anything else that makes BIC unique?
Another unique characteristic of ours is that we have 5 different BIC bases around the world: Silicon Valley, Singapore, London, Tokyo, and Shanghai. These 5 offices are not all cooperating with each other, but instead working separately on products that suit the environment of their location. The product that lets you see odor, which I will later speak about in detail, is made specifically with delicate Japanese people who worry about how they smell in mind.
The 5 locations are working on about 20 projects each. This means we have about 100 projects running in total, creating new culture and innovation everyday.
—How do the people at BIC work to create this innovation?
In general, one person is in charge of multiple projects. As I mentioned before, we have several projects running at the same time because we want to plant as many seeds as possible that could later on become a new business. Then, we pick the best out of the batch. Through a lot of trial and error, we want to increase the success rates of all of the projects as an organization.
In addition, because none of us are originally from the Konica Minolta, we are not tied to the company’s rules, which is good because we are able to have a lot of freedom in our work in regards to innovation.
Innovation different from startups.
—What makes BIC different from startup companies?
A lot of people take interest in us when they hear Konica Minolta, a large multifunction printer corporation, is doing something that has nothing to do with their main business. Therefore, I feel it is easier for us to approach stakeholders than for startups.
Also, because we are working on several projects as an organization, we are able to utilize things learned from other projects into something totally new.
—I heard you are contacting many people to collaborate with. What specific organizations and people are you contacting?
We want to collaborate with as many different kinds of organizations as possible. We are partners with other makers and factories, and we also plan to collaborate with universities, research institutions, government organizations and NGO/NPOs. On the other hand, we also are thinking about investing and starting joint projects with venture companies. By collaborating with these diverse groups of organizations, we will be able to broaden our potential of innovation.
HANA- a sudden idea turned into an opportunity
—Can you tell me more about HANA (High Accuracy Nose Assist)? A project to make you see your body odor; how did you think of such idea?
It was right around this time last year, when the temperature started to rise, I just thought I wanted to check if I have bad body odor. But I realized there are no such devices that lets me know how I smell, and even though there are so many kinds of deodorants, I never know if they are working or not. I’m always a bit nervous getting on a crowded train wondering if I smell bad or not.
When we research about “odor”, we found that odor is a problem not only found in homes, but also in offices and production sites. We want to make visible these smells to create a new value in the world.
What is crucial is the variety of odors
After research on the human odor, we found that there are a large variety of them, just with the human body odor. For every kind, like sweat, underarm, aging body, and middle age fat odor, the components that make up the smell are all different. What we have to do is first analyze the components to recognize which kind of odor it is, and then you can choose the correct type of deodorant. I believe it is important to analyze not just the strength of the stench, but the different types of smell.
—That is very interesting. You’ve been talking about human body odor, but are you thinking about other smells?
Objects and space. With objects, I’m talking about garbage in rooms, or like the smell of your pet. As for space, the smell inside the bathroom or the elevator…I think it is easy to imagine what kind of places it would be useful for.
—How do you plan to tackle this challenge?
We are creating the function platform HANA, which we plan to develop into a highly versatile system that can choose the correct sensors in order to analyze the odor.
With the current product we are making for body odor, the sensors are built inside the device. You wave the device near the area of the smell and it will send the analysis of the odor to your smartphone via Bluetooth. In the future, we want to add the function of it giving you advice about how you can get rid of the odor.
—How fast is the project moving along?
It’s been about a year to a year and a half from when we first came up with the idea to where we are now. I think that’s about the same speed as how venture companies create their new products.
Usually in a large corporation, you do a press release only when the product or service is completely finished. However, in our case, we’ve already done press releases. This way, we can get feedback from users at the early stage we are still at.
—What kind of organizations are you cooperating with currently?
We have a company who we ask for the board design, and a university that we are in a joint research with. In addition, we plan on partnering with several other organizations to get ready for the retail stage.
Making the invisible visible
—In conclusion, can you tell me a bit about the future of HANA?
Right now, we are working with a university to increase the accuracy of the scent detection function.
In the long run, we would like to make this odor detection platform available for objects and space as well to solve a variety of problems regarding odor.
Our 3-member project team has the mission to “make the invisible visible”. So to tell you the truth, we are actually thinking about other projects, not only with odor, that can make the invisible visible.
—Thank you for a great interview.
We hear a lot about large corporations lacking in innovation, but this was an interview that proved to me that some large corporations are, in fact, creating innovation inside their own companies. Konica Minolta’s new style of innovation of partnering with different organizations will not only influence the people inside of the company, but also society as a whole. Hardware startups should definitely check out Konica Minolta’s Business Innovation Center.
I hope in the near future we can live in a less stressful society where no one will have to worry about odor.