In last month’s Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 awards, a business that many might never have heard of but probably use their technology every day, carried home the prize for digital innovation.

In so doing, Apical – a company that develops microchip technology now used in over 1 billion smartphones – proved that while you don’t need to be big to succeed you can’t be shy when it comes to successful innovation.

“Innovation tends to be seen as something that someone thinks up in a lab somewhere,” says Michael Tusch, Apical’s CEO, “and a lot of it might start there, but it can only take you a little way. Very soon you have to engage with the market and with what people are doing with it – get out of the lab and into the real world. That’s where the real innovation happens.”

The big ‘eyedea’

Established 13 years ago on the back of an idea that you could replicate the way the human eye works and how it processes to improve electronic imaging, Apical’s co-founder and CEO Michael Tusch admits that, in the early days, “we weren’t quite sure where this technology would be useful, but we thought this kind of thing would be needed across many different applications in the future. It was the exact opposite of what they tell you to do; find a problem and solve it. There wasn’t really a problem we were solving but we thought it was promising technology.”

With a choice of accessing a range of markets where electronic imaging is critical, Apical went for one of the most fiercely competitive areas. “We decided to focus on embedded technology which involves putting technology into devices like smartphones and cameras,” says Tusch.

“My hunch was that in these very competitive markets, whoever has the best technology will win irrespective of how big they are or what their connections are.” Having made that choice, the need to continually drive innovation has been paramount adds Tusch: “While our technology is used in the majority of smart phones around the world, we live or die by our ability to innovate faster than our customers.”

Collaborate early

At the heart of Apical’s innovation strategy says Tusch is a twofold approach which depends on getting hold of the best human talent – the business now has 28 different nationalities working at its Loughborough site – and close collaboration with as many leading customers and manufacturers as possible. “I’ve seen companies raise a lot of money to work for a year or two and they finally come out with a product but the market hasn’t moved in a way in which they’d anticipated. What they thought was a great idea is not what people want anymore. Put [your product] into the market as early as you can and test it out, then you can adapt your innovation very well to what’s going on.”

Getting the balance right between innovation and execution is also important. “As we’ve grown, one of my overriding concerns has been getting that mix of innovation and the ability to execute. It’s quite easy to scale up and be very good at execution as a big company but then you’ve lost your innovativeness. On the other hand if you keep innovating but you can’t scale it, then you’re stuck as being a niche provider. Getting that balance right is key,” say Tusch.

Innovators win through

While Apical took home the digital innovation award, the tech company was not the only business able to show off its ability to innovate at the 2015 Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 awards dinner. Others to feature on the league table include Ve Interactive (who took the top spot) which develops software that uses artificial intelligence to help retailers encourage online shoppers to complete purchases that would otherwise be abandoned, and E-Leather, a firm that turns waste leather into lighter, stronger materials used for seating in buses, trains and airlines.

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