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The Evolution of Innovation: Discussing Affinnova with Jeffrey Henning and Tamara Barber

In 2000 a cabal of scientists and business leaders hatched a plot to use the power of evolution itself to change the world. Slowly expanding their influence and testing their technology based on advances in genetic and evolutionary computation, and the fast growing capabilities of the Internet to access the ‘collective mind’, they enacted their plan in stealth until finally emerging as a global powerhouse in 2011, an unstoppable force that is touching the lives of virtually everyone on the planet. Sound like the plot to a B-grade movie? Maybe, but it is also the (slightly dramatized) story of Affinnova.

 

In 2000 a cabal of scientists and business leaders hatched a plot to use the power of evolution itself to change the world. Slowly expanding their influence and testing their technology based on advances in genetic and evolutionary computation, and the fast growing capabilities of the Internet to access the ‘collective mind’, they enacted their plan in stealth until finally emerging as a global powerhouse in 2011, an unstoppable force that is touching the lives of virtually everyone on the planet.

Sound like the plot to a B-grade movie? Maybe, but it is also the (slightly dramatized) story of Affinnova.

If you’re like me, last year you might have begun to notice this company popping up on your radar. I first heard about them as they began recruiting for a few key roles, and I took a bit more notice when they lured Julie Kurd from Chadwick Martin Bailey. Over the last 2 months they have exploded onto the market research industry scene with six major announcements:

  1. Affinnova Appoints Tamara Barber Senior Director of Marketing
  2. Affinnova Names Jeffrey Henning Chief Marketing Officer
  3. Affinnova Creating 105 Jobs
  4. Affinnova Hires Jerome Simulin to Head European Expansion
  5. Affinnova Named to Top 50 List of Market Research Companies
  6. Affinnova is ranked 14th in GRIT Innovative MR Firms Ranking

Affinnova is certainly not in stealth mode anymore and being the nosy guy that I am I reached out to Tamara and Jeffrey to learn more about this company that suddenly seems to be everywhere. We met twice to discuss the company; the first time was for a general overview and to get a better feel for what drove them to jump ship from high profile roles in other organizations to Affinnova. The second time was to get a demo of Affinnova’s proprietary IDDEA platform in action. Through those two meetings I certainly learned a lot and also developed an impression of a company that exemplifies everything I tend to think of as the model of the next generation of research firms:

  • Game changing scalable technology
  • Highly focused business critical offerings
  • Significant investment in human capital and smart hiring choices
  • Business model that generates long term repeat business and recurring revenue streams
  • Not positioned as a market research firm, but rather as an R&D optimization solution
  • Engaged outside of corporate market research departments and working directly within marketing and R&D organizations

It’s that perspective that has prompted me to write about them now, and of course since both Tamara and Jeffrey have joined our list of contributing authors and are funneling such great content through GreenBook blog I think our readers would find a bit of insight into what Affinnova is about doubly interesting. Here are a few salient points from their website:

Affinnova was founded in 2000 by two PhDs from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Noubar Afeyan and Kamal Malek. Though from disparate fields – chemistry/biology in one case, mechanical engineering in the other – they shared an interest in artificial life and product design. The founders combined a number of trends converging at the time including new thinking about emergence in innovation and product design, advances in genetic and evolutionary computation, and the fast growing capabilities of the Internet to access the ‘collective mind’.

 

The initial inspiration for Affinnova came to one of our founders as he watched the well-publicized Kasparov versus the World chess match in 1999. As he observed the positions evolve, between the then world champion and the thousands of participants across the web, he wondered if something similar couldn’t be done for product design – where despite a massive range of options, the collective mind of consumers can find the best ‘next move’ for the designer. Within two years of its founding, Affinnova had developed and patented its novel Interactive Evolutionary Algorithms.

 

After a few years of piloting and refinements, Affinnova began commercializing their technology in earnest in 2004 with a focus on Consumer Packaged Goods. Innovative early adopters began applying optimization to their new product development, brand messaging and package design challenges. Today, Affinnova is being adopted as a crucial step in the innovation process throughout the CPG industry and has expanded into several additional verticals, including Life Sciences, Retail, Financial Services and Design. There is no obvious limit to how far Affinnova’s technology can reach – if a new idea’s success is dependent on consumer demand, and it can be rendered on a computer screen, Affinnova can help.

That’s a good summary of who they are, but what do they do? That’s actually fairly simple: to paraphrase one of my screeds, they help clients succeed. Specifically, they are focused on optimizing products, messages, and packaging. That’s it. And based on the data shared with me, they do it very well. When over 80% of new product introductions fail, even incremental increases in success can be significant and have real ROI, but Affinnova benchmarks their clients’ top concepts against the competition and has shown that when using their approach, 41% of their clients overtake their competition, 12% attain parity, and 25% close the gap. Those are startling numbers that translate into measurable and tangible return on investment for clients. No wonder they have grown 518% since 2006!

Although the company offers a variety of techniques to help customers optimize their concepts such as discrete choice and advanced conjoint methods, their flagship product is IDDEA, a proprietary platform based on the evolutionary optimization algorithm.  Here is a bit more on how the platform works from their site:

Marketing innovation for new products, packaging and advertising suffers from a pattern of slow, incremental innovation with notoriously high failure rates. This is because traditional monadic idea-measurement tools have extremely limited capacity and thus dictate a serial, iterative approach.

 

IDDEA overcomes this limitation by enabling marketers to easily develop a robust space of idea variations, and then vet all of it. Our dynamic algorithm mimics evolutionary principles to create a survival-of-the-fittest vetting process. Study participants are guided through a series of dynamically generated concept sets where they are asked to select the concepts that are most appealing. Each decision informs the algorithm which then affects the content of subsequent concept sets. This happens in real-time at the individual level, and across respondents to identify market-wide optimal ideas.

 

Once identified, the top concepts can now be measured to quickly determine the next step. IDDEA II includes a comparative measurement of top concepts against relevant benchmarks, including competitors. We uniquely map concepts on two dimensions of purchase intent – breadth and intensity of appeal – for more clarity of an idea’s potential for success.

I was able to obtain a few screen shots of IDEAA  in action that should give you a sense of the look and feel of the interface as well as the standard type of questions that are part of the benchmarking process for the key measures that help inform the scoring algorithm.   In general, I found the UI to be visually engaging and interactive since it is a Flash-based interface that accommodates both graphics and text. The set-up was also fairly intuitive, allowing for fast implementation, something I did not expect from a platform with that much going on under the hood. In fact, I could easily imagine Affinnova making the IDDEA platform available as a DIY tool with a few tweaks, although Jeffrey and Tamara did not see that particular application on the near horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

Not only is the company evolving how innovation work is done for their clients, but they are also an example of the evolution of the broad market research category. As I mentioned earlier, they are virtually the poster child for the model of success that I think will be necessary for companies in our space to flourish in the coming years. Jeffrey and Tamara saw that as well, which was certainly one of the drivers for their individual decisions to join the company.

So far, the company seems to have success coded into their DNA (appropriate for a firm grounded in biological science, eh?) and are making many very, very smart decision on all levels. It will be interesting to watch them grow over the next few years and see if they can maintain a steady stream of innovation on their own. One of the challenges they and other companies that start out with a laser focus on solving one business issue is how to diversify and broaden their portfolio while maintaining a clear vision of who they are and what they can do. I see several logical extensions to their core business and the possibilities for including some different types of data to deepen the value of the core offering, but it may take some time for the company to find their way in exploring how internal innovation will play a role in their own growth. One thing is for sure though: Affinnova is a company to watch and they have much to teach the rest of the market research space about innovation.

07/07 Update: Ray Poynter has a great video interview with Tamara Barber as part of the NewMR Advanced Quant Event. I highly recommend it as a perfect bookend to the profile above. You can find it here or via the embed below.

 

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