Innovation in Plastics

An Interview with Borealis VP Alfred Stern
By Sandy Staggs
In the 1967 film "The Graduate," Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is offered one word of advice, “plastics.” Some 40 years later, “plastics” has become synonymous with another word, Borealis.

Borealis provides plastic materials to the infrastructure, automotive and advanced packaging markets across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and maintains production facilities and customer centers in more than 120 countries.

Innovation plays a central role in Borealis' strategy of creating and delivering value to customers. Borealis' polymer research and product focuses on high-performance, cost-effective, and differentiated polymers. Approximately 30 percent of Borealis' research and development budget is dedicated to future technology and innovation, including development in polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE).

Three Borealis innovation centers are the key elements in Borealis' delivery of innovative polyolefin solutions. The Borealis Innovation Headquarters is in Linz, Austria, and within easy reach of industrial regions in southern Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Italy. Historically, industry was centered on mining and steel but now includes petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and other industries. The core innovative competences are PP development, particularly for automotive, appliances, advanced packaging, and moulding applications.

At the Porvoo Innovation Centre, the core innovative competencies are the Borstar process development (Borealis' state-of-the-art multi-modal proprietary technology which is more economical and environmentally-friendly) and fundamental catalyst development, as well as up-scaling to commercial trials. The Swedish Innovation Centre is located in Stenungsund, Sweden, close to the hub of the Swedish plastics industry, which hosts several leading world players in high tech industries. Special leading products include Visico, Supercure, Supersmooth, Borcell, BorPEX, and Borcoat. The core innovative competencies are PE development, particularly for wire, cable, and pipe.

Alfred Stern, Vice President Innovation and Technology, is based in Linz, Austria and recently shared some Borealis philosophies with

SS: What role and level does innovation play at Borealis?

Alfred SternAlfred Stern: Innovation plays a central role in Borealis. Our strategy is "Value creation through innovation." We believe that by understanding and working with the partners throughout the value chain, we can deliver better solutions to our customers’ needs. We invest significantly in innovation both in terms of people and infrastructure.

SS: What constitutes a good result in innovation returns?

Alfred Stern: The revenues coming from innovation is the key starting point. This is essential and a cornerstone of our success for creating the necessary "urgency" about innovation value contribution. We put a lot of focus on the cross functional view and management of our Innovation Project Portfolio. Balancing incremental and breakthrough ambitions, managing commercial and technology risks are important choices that require constant senior management attention and will help maximize the return of our innovation investment.

SS: What else do you do to encourage innovation?

Alfred Stern: The foundation of innovation is people, their competencies and the way they interact with each other. Developing a culture that favors innovation is essential. One can not force innovation, so we focus our leadership efforts into developing a climate that can foster an innovation culture. We also celebrate, reward success and recognize people on a regular base.

SS: Are you collaborative? Do you outsource or use outside consultants and companies?

Alfred Stern: A significant share of our innovation develops through external cooperation with academia, suppliers and customers. We believe in building on diversity of perspectives, in a collaborative manner.

SS: Have you used online ideation and/or innovation resources?

Alfred Stern: We have and continuously develop an online collaboration platform within our company. These are great resources that can complement well, but not replace, human interactions.

SS: What is the most exciting innovation you've been involved in developing?

Alfred Stern: Fender for BMW X5

SS: What is the most difficult problem you or your team has solved?

Alfred Stern: Borstar® Technology development. Borstar® is Borealis’ proprietary technology for advanced polypropylene and polyethylene design. Borealis has recently implemented Borstar® second generation in Burghausen, Germany.

SS: What type of training have you done at Borealis?

Alfred Stern: Six Sigma.

SS: When you are stuck, what do you do?

Alfred Stern: I use creativity tools for problem solving. We have done significant creativity training with our employees.

SS: Can you recommend any particular books on innovation that you or your staff have read?

Alfred Stern: I can recommend the books "Blue Ocean Strategy" and "The Toyota Way."

SS: What, if any ideation or problem solving software do you use?

Alfred Stern: We use a software as a tool to support our idea management process, primarily targeted for idea campaigns.

SS: Have you ever heard of IdeaConnection?

Alfred Stern: No, unfortunately I have not yet heard of IdeaConnection.

SS: Can you recommend any other innovation web sites of value?

Alfred Stern: Not really. We do not have a company orchestrated approach in using innovation web sites. The web is one among other sources that our people use and decide to use depending on their tasks and challenges.

Alfred Stern joined Borealis in June 2008 after a long stint at E.I. Du Pont de Nemours where he held several leadership positions in the areas of research and development, sales and marketing, and quality and business management in Switzerland, Germany and the United States. In his last assignment, he was Global Business Manager of the Engineering Polymers Business Unit in the United States. Bringing a wealth of experience in plastics material research and development, as well as in application and new product development, Stern holds a PhD in material science and a master’s degree in polymer engineering and science, both from the University of Leoben in Austria. He has been awarded, among others, the DuPont Award for a new product patent and a Prize of Honor from the Austrian Ministry of Science and Research. He is 43 years old and now lives in Linz with his wife and their two children.

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