November 2015 | Keri Allan

Innovation agenda

Tata is betting big on innovation in Europe, too, where the group’s businesses place a high priority on research and development, as well as backing innovators and entrepreneurs

Innovation is the key to the development of new products and services throughout the Tata group; it’s part of its global DNA. This attitude also informs its European operations, where a structured approach to growth, both internally and out in the market, continues to drive sector-specific advances.

The Jaguar Land Rover team with the Tata InnoVista 2015 award for new product development
Several of the European businesses were showcased during the latest Tata InnoVista competition. The group-wide annual initiative that celebrates new and creative ideas pioneered by Tata companies is a great example of how the global innovation agenda is strongly championed in Europe.

Jaguar Land Rover was one of the companies recognised for its innovation at the global final. A winner in the ‘new product’ category, the car giant’s engineers have developed the world’s first pedestrian airbag for the small SUV market. Deploying from the external surface of the bonnet within 60 milliseconds of impact, it has been designed to reduce the risk of serious pedestrian injury.

Europe also stood out in the ‘service enabling innovation’ category. The European arm of Tata Consultancy Services was recognised for its ‘service integration and management’ IT solution, which provides a scalable and flexible platform for forging collaboration across supply chains.

Innovation is a constant companion across all Tata businesses in the region. And as the Tata InnoVista examples show, it’s not always just new products. Tata businesses within Europe are also pioneering innovative processes and approaches.

Driving manufacturing
One great example, from Tata Technologies, is the development of a methodology to help car manufacturers evaluate how best to balance cost against performance while still meeting legal and environmental obligations. This is the “5Rs” approach, a methodology that’s designed to deliver an efficient body structure with the right performance at the right price, in part by getting the right amount of the right materials located in the right place.

“The methodology means that when we are provided with a client’s performance and cost requirements we can quickly provide a compatible solution,” explains Rob Smith, chief engineer of body structures at Tata Technologies. “We developed this approach to emphasise our understanding of balancing cost, attributes and other targets when designing an optimised lightweight structure.”

Building a process around this methodology has allowed Tata Technologies to offer customers a quick way to see how different variables and attributes like component weight will affect their total costs. “We also have the expertise to deliver, whatever the balance of the equation produced,” notes Mr Smith.

“There’s an industry demand for lightweight cars,” adds Ian Warland, body structures technical specialist at Tata Technologies.“We’ve established this new process because every car will have its own set of performance targets to achieve. The innovative aspect is that we’ve put a process behind why we use certain materials in certain areas, without relying on all the CAD [computer-aided design] and CAE [computer-aided engineering] analysis beforehand.”

Those kinds of process and methodology innovation are usually invisible to the end consumer, even if they benefit hugely from them. But Tata’s European businesses do plenty of creative work that is much more obvious to the market. One great example comes from Tetley, one the UK’s biggest tea brands and part of Tata Global Beverages.

Last year, Tetley became the first company to offer ‘functional’ green teas with proven health benefits to UK consumers. This was no small task. For years, there was doubt over the efficacy of green tea as a health supplement. But by building on the basic green tea product (which, in any case, has been shown by recent studies in Japan to be strongly correlated to longevity), the team at Tetley were able to develop a certified product.

Cheer in a teacup
European Food Standards Agency approved the claim that these teas have been shown to support the immune system and help reduce tiredness and fatigue through a mix of vitamin C and vitamin B6. In addition to the vitamin enhancement, the teas use slow-dried natural flavours, making a real difference to the taste. “It’s really important that we not only delivered these two very important health benefits, but also developed the best tasting green teas to address the taste issue some consumers have with green tea,” says Alex Snowden, senior brand manager at Tetley.

Sales of green tea have increased significantly in recent years, growing at 17 percent year-on-year, driven by over 250,000 new consumers drinking green tea as people become more health conscious. “Two and a half million cups of green tea are drunk everyday in the UK and one in three of us take vitamins or supplements on a daily basis,” says Andrew Pearl, director of customer and shopper marketing. "The £400m vitamin market, combined with the interest tea drinkers have in health and their willingness to try something new, creates a positive sales environment.”

Some innovations work behind the scenes; others go to build great products for consumers. But plenty cross the boundary between the two, creating completely new ways of working that act as a platform for Tata group’s clients. A great example of that platform approach comes from Tata Communications, which has been offering creative and innovative solutions for Formula One (F1), the world’s prestigious motor-racing series.

Like the cars themselves, innovation in F1 moves at break-neck speed. “It’s about squeezing that last bit of competitive advantage out of every aspect of your performance,” explains Julie Woods-Moss, chief marketing officer and CEO of Nextgen Business at Tata Communications. “It’s an incredible environment for rapid prototyping and moving to a commercial proposition.” Tata Communications’ first customer in this fast-paced auto sport environment was Formula One Management, the company that oversees the sport. The mission: to power its global operations by connecting each race location to the Tata Communications global network, the world’s largest wholly-owned submarine fibre network. But over time the Tata Communications offering has developed into a platform that includes racing teams such as Mercedes AMG Petronas and a number of broadcasters.

“This is now a platform that many different organisations share,” says Ms Woods-Moss. “Working in this cutting edge, collaborative environment, we’ve been able to develop unified communications and analytics across all stakeholders, and we’ve been able to use this in other parts of our business, too.”

Projects have included developing a 4K video offering — 4K is the latest in high definition television resolution, also known as ultra high definition — to put fans with fibre broadband into the action more realistically than ever before. That innovation went from prototype to commercial proposition in a little over a month.

Tata Communications has also been able to develop ways to very quickly set up and decommission complicated networking environments, such as those based in the cloud. “In a typical enterprise environment it would take perhaps ten weeks [to turn on the platform],” says Ms Woods-Moss. “With F1 we have to do this in less than four days, and over 19 times a year in several countries. Then we also have to decommission in literally a couple of hours.”

The creativity spread
Critically, this kind of high-profile innovation also benefits the wider customer base. Many companies are crying out for fast, flexible communications platforms. “We’ve been able to bring this innovation into some of our core operations, providing customers with much faster service on-boarding,” she adds.

Through its relationship with Formula One Management, Tata Communications has also developed a competition to bring new talent into F1’s innovation ecosystem. The F1 Connectivity Innovation Prize asks viewers and fans to find innovative solutions to challenges. The entries are then judged by professionals, including Formula One Management’s chief technical officer, Tata Communications’ managing director of its F1 business and racing stars such as Lewis Hamilton and David Coulthard.

So far these challenges have included finding new ways to present and use the telemetry from the cars, as well as crowd-sourcing race forecasts and predictions. With a cash prize of US$50,000 and a behind-the-scenes trip to a F1 race weekend, it’s an amazing opportunity. But as Ms Woods-Moss highlights, this is just another way to build innovation in Tata’s European operations.

“It’s very prestigious to win a prize with the potential for ideas to be incubated within the ecosystem,” she says. “Research has shown that for every euro you put into a prize like this, you get thousands back in terms of the innovation ecosystem that’s created,” she concludes. “It’s a very smart way of attracting talent and solving problems.”

The importance of student innovation
Tata is keen to back European innovation outside of the company, as well as in its own R&D teams and commercial operations. One great example is the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs’ (NACUE) Varsity Pitch, a competition for student and graduate innovators to raise funds and profile around inventions they’ve developed as part of their studies.

Considered the UK’s largest student pitching competition, its aim is to give competitors the best possible chance of their business ideas succeeding. Young professionals apply by submitting a 60 second video pitch. The best entries are chosen to present their ideas in person at the semi-final, with eight individuals or teams making it to the final. There, they are given two minutes to pitch their idea to a panel of industry experts. The winner is awarded £10,000 to put towards their business.

Past winners include Ed Moyse and Harry Huang, who pitched an app called Wyre that makes it easy to pay vendors using Bitcoin via a mobile phone. They have now launched a successful new startup called JournoRequest that sends requests from journalists straight to the inboxes of public relations executives.

Emily Brooke won Varsity Pitch back in 2013 with her invention — a bicycle light that projects an image of a bike onto the road in front of the cyclist, letting drivers (especially of buses and lorries) know not to turn into them and cause an accident. Her company, Blaze, used the £10,000 to undertake retina tracking testing, proving their product works. It is now on sale online.

Tata understands that it is hugely important to support college and university-based innovation, which is why it has been a core supporter of the NACUE Varsity Pitch since its launch. As well as offering financial support, its involvement has helped raise the public profile of the event and it also provides mentors to take part in the competition’s ‘boot-camp’ stage, giving entrants the chance to gain rigorous enterprise training from industry experts.

“We provide the raw material for the UK economy to grow,” says Graham Kinch, NACUE’s chief finance officer. “Without NACUE’s grass root involvement you wouldn’t get the level of people thinking about going into business for themselves, something which is needed in order to stimulate the wider UK economy.” That’s a mission Tata’s European team are only too happy to support.

Keri Allan is a freelance journalist and editor. She contributes regularly to Perspective, the magazine for Tata in Europe.