07/12/2013 01:08 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2013

Can Innovation Have Impact? ON:Conference's Rik Willard Sees It as the Path Forward

"What is the nature of innovation and how can one harness it to make an impact on business investments globally?" Rik Willard recalled asking two of his business associates, some eighteen months ago.

Together with Ray Garcia, a twice-exited entrepreneur and Executive-in-Residence at MIT Media Lab, and Jeff Carter, founder of the Center for Future Banking at MIT and Chief Strategy Officer of EyeLock, Willard recapped the traditional approaches to innovation exploring "what has been studied and mostly, what hasn't worked."

Inspired by Steve Jobs, Rik Willard made the jump from media into the ON:Conferences Innovation Platform. Paraphrasing the late Apple co-founder, "Innovation happens in the hallways and at the water cooler... bright minds, new approaches yield insights and impactful innovative ideas."

In an interview with Mr. Willard at the Gansevoort Hotel in Manhattan a week after the ON:Cybersecurity conference, he spoke candidly to me.

"What is the nature of innovation and impact? You get as many answers to that question as people ask. We are different from the plethora of meet-ups, panels, and live conferences. We team with the right partners and we are a place where it's okay to be heretical -- where marketing is secondary to straightforwardness and thoughtful exploration -- a 'living think tank.'

Unique Model

"The ON: credo is simple: Insight. Innovation. Impact. We aim to create a fertile ecosystem that spurs innovative ideas, corporate-entrepreneurial partnerships, and team building. Most of all, we want to be able to use our powerful advisory partners to develop new companies that generate market-based returns via socially impactful policies, companies, products, and services," Rik Willard said, adding, "The ON:Conferences Innovation Platform is defining the meaning of impact for global economies."

"How did the first conference go?" I asked.

"Without any marketing, our first two events, ON:Bioscience and ON:Cybersecurity, attracted heavy hitters such as Jonathan Mariner, CFO of Major League Baseball and head of MLB Ventures; Mike Robinson, Head Analyst at Access Industries; Steve Nagler, Founder of MedPro Investments; and Bob Silverman, Head of Ventures at Roche/Genentech. Also in attendance, were many startups and key corporate innovation officers," he explained. "It seems that the idea of 'pragmatic futurity' with an eye on global issues and social benefit is a place where people want to be."

The platform's first two ON conferences attracted young entrepreneurs from the Harvard Business School Club, and the recent ON:Cybersecurity event was also attended by select members of the Harvard Angel Investing Group.

Attending the ON:Cybersecurity conference, I was impressed by the midtown location and the setup in the conference center of Shearman & Sterling LLP, one of ON's sponsors. "Our first ON:Bioscience event was held at the Apella Event Space. The folks there are amazing. As the home of several bioscience companies it was the perfect venue for our inaugural event. S&S aligns well with our international focus," Mr. Willard said.

Prior to the panel, a VIP reception fostered entrepreneurs and professionals in media, cybersecurity, entertainment, marketing, advertising, private equity, and business law to meet and greet. That included meeting the panelists: Jeff Carter, Chief Strategy Officer at EyeLock; Carrie Schaper, information security professional (Hacker) in the FedRamp program; Brad Leinhardt, co-founder at SOCURE, Inc., a cybersecurity startup; and Dale Nordenberg, MD, a healthcare cybersecurity expert and founding Director of the Medical Device Innovation, Safety and Security Consortium.

The Road to Better Cybersecurity

Dale Nordenberg focused on the vulnerability to cyber attacks of medical devices and information systems, such as medical records, a vastly overlooked area that hackers are now exploiting. Medical institutions, even if aware of the vulnerability to their systems, are failing to beef up their defenses sufficiently to stifle the hackers. As hospitals suffer more patient data breaches, class action lawsuits against healthcare systems have emerged in New York and Florida, with a half dozen more states to follow.

How can we move beyond the analog era of usernames and passwords? For Jeff Carter and EyeLock's "Advanced Iris Identity Authentication Solutions," the future of the more robust individual security lies in the field of unique biometrics markers.

In the Q&A session, I asked Mr. Carter: "Today it's easy to copy masters like van Gogh and Monet. How difficult is it for hackers to steal and copy the image of someone's iris?"

Carter replied, "At EyeLock our technology isn't only about capturing a photo image of the iris. Without going into the details on the IP, it's about capturing the 'living parts' of the iris, not just the photographic image."

The live ON:Conference was digitally captured and will be available at ON's website.

Breaking The Results-Driven Paradigm

With his start in advertising, Willard "fused technology with consumer messaging," and that resulted in co-founding America's first commercial public big screen HDTV company in the 1990s. "I started interfacing with people like Mark Stahlman and the early Technorealism group out of Harvard Law School, with some help from MIT. Those associations helped me understand technology in a social context."

Mr. Willard sees the tech revolution impacting all business sectors, which is one reason why the ON:Conferences Innovation Platform is sector-agnostic.

As he sees it: "We are fast moving away from the 20th century 'profits first' paradigm. Of course, profit is important, but it must go hand-in-hand with the realities of constant change and social necessity. Large companies rarely navigate innovation or change well. Our business model has been engineered to spur innovation that technologies will bring over the next decade. People understand that change is pervasive. They need platforms like ON to provide roadmaps covering the path from insight through launch and funding. The era of rote marketing pitches is over."

A differentiator for ON:Conferences is the building of an ecosystem for entrepreneurs, emerging companies, breakthrough technologies, innovators, and the capital markets. It's more than hosting events and panel discussions. ON assists both innovators and companies through private advisory services that create opportunities for honing business strategies for successful innovation, deal making, and funding.

With more ON:Conference events scheduled in the fall -- mobile payments in September and retail disruption in October -- Willard wondered, "How can we add value to the merchant ecosystem?"

In our interview, he discussed how to evolve the economy in a sustainable manner: "Capitalism is a great motivator. But it can't only be financially driven. The new generation of business leaders knows money is not the only driver. We need to grow. But we need to do it in a sustainable way."

Clearly, The ON:Conferences Innovation Platform aims to be the nexus of ideas, finance, and technology -- a "pipeline that entire business sectors use as a guide to deploy fiscally and socially impactful businesses."

Technology Will Become More Productive
Mr. Willard -- as does this author -- sees the fading importance of social media as a growth generator. Mobility, automation, and productivity with respect to business processes will become the key drivers.

"Don't get me started on the Internet of Things," he said. "We're not being controlled by Big Data -- we ARE Big Data. The irony is that true progress is at hand and we have the means to actually and fundamentally change the world. It's finding pathways to make it happen."

Willard paused, and added, "That's hard to do in a large corporation. It's antithetical to the current concept of profit to be on a constant pivot-watch. The discussion about innovation should include the search for meaning and context as well as returns if we want to move capitalism into a user-friendlier place. ON: came out of that thought process, to provide insight for innovation and impact in entrepreneurship, financing and corporate evolution."