Phoebe Kwan is a Director at NOVA, the External Venturing arm of Saint-Gobain. Saint-Gobain is a French multinational company, world leader in the habitat and construction markets. The company designs, manufactures and distributes building materials, providing innovative solutions to the challenges of growth, energy efficiency and environmental protection. We had the pleasure of talking with Phoebe about her role and learn what the company is doing in and around Open Innovation.

Tell us more about your role and the external ventures team.

NOVA External Venturing is the Saint-Gobain unit dedicated to developing strategic partnerships between the Group and startup companies all over the world. Our goal is to be the bold catalyst and the interface between the two worlds. We look out for the long term goals of the company and find startups that can help execute that strategy and mission. We make sure that the partnerships are win-win for both parties and that we can grow together as part of the larger ecosystem.

What is Saint-Gobain doing around efficient buildings, indoor comfort and air quality, and urban sustainability?

We are the world leader in sustainable habitat so this strategic commitment is a big part of what we do as a company. For us, green buildings is not just about energy efficiency, it is also about optimizing the building occupants’ comfort and wellness, and what is good for the environment. Our definition of indoor comfort is multi-dimensional; it encompasses thermal, visual, indoor air quality and acoustic comfort. We want to make sure the occupants are aware of their surroundings so that they can optimize their comfort.

What are you doing in terms of Open Innovation?

Saint-Gobain has its own R&D group but we recognize the fact that there are great ideas outside of our walls.

We have a NOVA team for startups whose job is to identify and nurture startups and make sure we can have a successful partnership with them. Last year we had the 5th NOVA innovation competition. We had close to 300 applicants from all around the world and invited the 8 finalists to pitch to a panel of top executives during Greenbuild Conference. Today we are actively working with a number of these companies on active projects at various stages.

Saint-Gobain is also an active sponsor of several incubators, including the Greentown Labs in Boston. This gives us the opportunity to interact daily with startups. We have noticed that the best ideas often come from talking with people in informal discussions and immersing ourselves in their environment.

For example, in 2014 we partnered with the French company Brochier® Technologies to co-develop the ONIRYS™ lighting fabric. The two partners benefit from their combined expertise serving the industrialization of lighting fabrics. See all the details here. We also have a University Relations team that does partnership development with universities.

What types of innovation or new technologies are you currently looking for?

There are 5 target areas we are currently focusing on:

  • Mulitcomfort and Energy Efficiency
  • Digital Tools – the convergence of the physical and digital world and how they intersect to maximize energy efficiency, experience and comfort of the occupant
  • Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality – how can we use use VR/AR to maximize customer experience. For example, if a customer wants to renovate their home we can use VR or AR to show them what it would look and feel like
  • Advanced Materials and Processing
  • Life Sciences – we provide solutions and components for fluids management (bioprocessing medical devices)

What are your toughest challenges?

As I mentioned, at NOVA we are facilitating the relationship between the corporate and the startup world. There is a very big cultural difference and one of the biggest challenges is mediating these two worlds. We have to make sure each party understands the other’s language. We help make the bigger picture apparent, why they should be in this together and work towards a common goal. As in any relationships, we constantly learn from and with each other, and the relationship evolves over time.

What are your objectives in the next 5 – 10 years?

My goal is that we see startups as partners. I also want us to find startups with the most innovative technology that aligns with our strategy. When the market grows, everybody grows, so working together can only be a win-win opportunity for all of us.

OICPhoebe will be presenting the NOVA team in more detail at our next Open Innovation Club Tech Meeting on Efficient Buildings and Sustainable Urban Development in Boston on April 19 at Greentown Labs. Register here.