Innovator-in-chief: how CTOs unlock the potential of technology for Europe
20 November 2019
As the executive responsible at the highest level for technology development within a company, a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) leads R&D&I teams in the quest for new solutions to market needs. In doing so, they often shape innovations that address some of society’s biggest challenges in areas like energy, healthcare or mobility. The CTO of the Year Europe award recognises the work of these pioneering technology leaders. The 2019 edition was presented on 12 November at Orgalim’s ‘Reinventing Europe’s Industrial Leadership’ event: Amina Hamidi-Calvo (pictured left), CTO of ABB Electrification, claimed the title in the Large Enterprises category; while Faktion CTO Joeri Van Steen (pictured right) triumphed in the SME category.
We sat down with Amina and Joeri to talk about their journey so far, and how they view the role of a CTO both within a company and as a driver of innovation for society more broadly.
Congratulations on being named CTO of the Year Europe 2019! What does it mean to you to have won this award?
Amina: It’s a great honour and a wonderful recognition for me and my R&D team at ABB Electrification, who are innovating and working tirelessly on our new generation of technologies, products and solutions. I’m really proud of them and proud of the work we are doing.
Joeri: I also see it as a reward not only for myself but for my team. It is a tribute to the hard work we have put in over the three years since Faktion was founded: in addition to delivering between 20 and 30 customer projects, we have successfully incubated two AI products, which is a big challenge.
Tell us a little about your journey to get to where you are today…
Joeri: My path was a little unconventional, but I have always been an entrepreneur. While studying computer science at university, I was also a DJ playing at the biggest clubs in Belgium. I started my first company organising events, as we turned the house parties we would throw for a few hundred people into major gigs hosting thousands. Then when I was 26 or 27 I changed track, going from a professional producer and DJ to focus fully on technology. I moved into software consultancy and worked as interim CTO at other companies, before launching my first company building software applications. I subsequently co-founded Faktion, and this has been my focus ever since.
Amina: For my part, I first joined ABB as a scientist and project leader at our research centre in Switzerland, after completing a PhD in power electronics. After around ten years in R&D, I moved to the business side to explore new areas such as business development and general management. Over time I developed a unique competence spanning both the business world and the technology world, which is essential in my current role as CTO at ABB Electrification.
Explain to us what exactly a CTO does, and what are the most important qualities for a CTO to have?
Amina: There are a number of sides to a CTO’s role. An important one, as I just mentioned, is the task of bringing together the technology and business perspectives. I always tell my scientists when developing products, you have to think first and foremost about what will bring value to the customer, but also to consider that this innovation will need to be produced, sold, operated and serviced – so both sides of the coin are important.
Joeri: Totally agree – as a CTO you are responsible for ensuring tech development is aligned with the business. You can’t simply follow your own interests; you have business imperatives and you have to know how to deliver a customer project within budget and in a workable way.
Amina: Another important aspect from my perspective is that a CTO needs to stay ahead of the technology curve. At ABB it is really part of our DNA, so a key part of my role is ensuring we retain our technology leadership. Finally, a CTO is also a leader of people: we need to attract the right people with the right skills, and create a culture of innovation that inspires the best from our teams.
Joeri: Leadership is indeed a big part of it. Ultimately you are responsible for managing the whole engineering team, so for me it is crucial to have a clear process – roadmap, deadlines, strategy – in which the whole team is involved. Plus, it is important that every team member is involved in every aspect of the technology; collaboration at an early stage is vital to avoid problems down the line.
Clearly, then, CTOs have an important role in achieving business goals. But how do you view the impact of your work more broadly – how can the innovation you steer help address the challenges facing society?
Amina: Well at ABB our work on electrification centres on delivering safe, smart and sustainable electrical energy ‘from the source to the socket’. A number of our products significantly enhance safety for those operating electrical equipment. Moreover, we are innovating in many areas related to sustainability – from smart grid technology, energy efficiency in buildings, to electric mobility. For example, we are supporting adoption of electric vehicles by developing high-powered chargers that can give enough power to drive 200km with a charge of just eight minutes. This can strengthen public acceptance of this key future technology.
Joeri: At Faktion we engage to give back to society by collaborating with non-profit organisations to share our experience in building AI solutions, so they can see what innovation can do for them. For example, we worked on a project that aimed to use AI technology to improve early detection of Alzheimer’s disease through speech analysis – diagnostic medicine is a promising field where AI can make a difference.
Of course as a CTO you do not operate in a vacuum: in addition to business and market imperatives, what role does the regulatory and policy framework play – particularly in the EU context Orgalim works in?
Joeri: I’m fascinated by politics and policymaking, although I may not always agree with the results! Looking at Europe, I was interested to see that the EU is freeing up a budget specifically for R&I in AI. But the biggest problem if I compare the European research funding system with our national one is the speed: here in Belgium it takes just two or three months to secure a decent amount of funding, whereas going the EU route can take a while. Accelerating this process is a challenge I think Europe and the Commission should try to solve.
Amina: I certainly think policy has a daily impact on what we do. And I think it is a good idea to work closely with policymakers, because if we look ahead to the future when there is a higher level of electrification but also higher concerns about environmental impact, many of the technologies we develop will enable greater sustainability. So having a regulatory framework that will support the EU in this direction is important for us.
Which technology trends do you think will be most important for Europe in the coming years – and where will the challenges be in unlocking this potential?
Joeri: It won’t surprise you, but I would have to say AI. And a key challenge will be finding ways to share data, to make AI applications even smarter. Another obstacle is that the openness to embrace new tech like AI varies significantly across sectors. There is work to do to unlock the benefits across industries.
Amina: That rings true for me, too: different customer segments have different levels of acceptance of digital and connectivity; some are quicker to adopt while others are more cautious. A big piece of the puzzle is cybersecurity: a challenge for all new technologies is to ensure that data is completely secure. For us, cybersecurity is something we live every day as we know it is key for the adoption of digital technologies by our customers.
Finally, what advice would you give to the next generation of CTOs looking to walk in your footsteps?
Amina: CTOs should inspire innovation and unlock the creativity of their team. So my advice would be just go for it – be a role model for your R&D team, be that source of inspiration. Encourage your team to take risks, to go for innovation and to unlock the potential of technologies to bring value to customers and to society as a whole.
Joeri: The best advice that I can give is to be part of your team. As a leader, you set the example: if your team accepts you as a member of the team and as a friend, and they see that you work hard and are on top of the latest tech and industry trends, they will take inspiration from that. So be an example and motivate your people.