The head of R&D at GrafTech, Lionel Batty, told me in an interview that, “Invention is the act of turning money into knowledge; innovation is turning knowledge into money.” And that phrase has helped focus my work over the past two years reporting on science and innovation in Northeast Ohio for WKSU. My series Exploradio takes me into labs and businesses across the region in search of original research and business innovation. I found both at the headquarters of GOJO.
Growing up in Akron, I’ve been long familiar with the creamy, waterless soap that went hand-in-hand with my father’s attempts at auto repair. The feel and smell of the GOJO original formulation is an indelible part of my childhood. But that’s not why I wanted to do a story about GOJO. I’m interested in how the company reimagined itself, not just as a soap maker, but as a health products company, as a skin care company, and increasingly as a health management informatics company.
Another truism I’ve seen in covering innovative businesses like GOJO, is that if you can imagine it, you can make it real. All too often revenue, raw materials, or market share are not the limiting factors of future success for companies. It’s creativity. The pressure to ‘stick to your knitting’ and focus on traditional products is an attractive business philosophy, but it’s not a plan for growth - we have the ‘vision’ vs. ‘knitting’ arguments in the radio business all the time.
But how do you learn how new products will be received until you test them in the marketplace? Benson Lee, president of Technology Management Inc., told me, “If Henry Ford had stopped to ask people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Disruptive technologies, or new category-defining products, require courage and a leap of faith to invest in and pursue. That dynamic interests me as a reporter, tracing the sometimes circuitous path from research to innovation to exploration. It was a privilege to witness that process in full bloom at GOJO.
To listen to Jeff St. Clair's interview with Joe Kanfer, Marcella Kanfer Rolnick and Jim Arbogast on "GOJO and the Science of Clean," go to the GOJO Newsroom.