How does a business react quickly in a crisis? Have an innovative culture already in place.
That’s the way CEO Joe Mirabile, JD/MBA ‘09, LLM ’11, explains his approach to innovation at United Safety and Survivability Corporation, a manufacturing company headquartered in Exton, Pa.
“You have to be continually looking at how you can improve your products or use them in different ways,” he says. “We believe we are always being chased by the competition, so we really think about our job and the opportunities that are in front of us.”
It’s a mindset Mirabile frequently shares with the community at the Fox School of Business. He recently participated in a panel discussion, “Creating Competitive Advantage Through Innovative Strategies,” hosted by the Translational Research Center as well as contributed to assistant professor Solon Moreira’s research by sharing how United Safety innovated and strengthened its market position during COVID.
United Safety’s mission is to design and engineer world-class safety, survivability and technology solutions that prevent serious injury or death from occurring in all types of mobile vehicle applications.
“We really approach all of our new products and development thinking about how we can really improve the quality of life of the people who are our customers or how we can prevent them from being injured in their jobs,” he says. “Then we look at what we are doing and why we are doing it.
Innovation has driven the company’s rise from a garage startup to a multi-million dollar operation that continues to expand globally and employs more than 1,000 people, including a team dedicated to innovation.
“During COVID, we were put in a situation where we saw the ridership of public transportation really lose their access to equitable transportation because of fear (of contracting the virus),” he says. “That often prevented them from going to get treatment, medications or even the groceries that they needed.”
The company went to work to find a solution that would put riders at ease when using public transportation.
“We were able to come up with our Active Air air purification system that helped rapidly rid a vehicle of virus and bacteria particles that could make people sick,” he said. That air purification technology has been expanded for use in vehicles used by the military, first responders and school districts.
A willingness to collaborate with other organizations has been key to identifying innovative solutions amid the pandemic crisis.
“We understood that our normal prototype development curve during the COVID pandemic wasn’t going to be a fit for what was needed to solve this problem in public transportation,” he says. “We needed a pre-existing technology, one that had a track record, testing and the ability to be quickly turned around and implemented.
“So we partnered with a long-standing firm that had for many years developed solutions for bioterrorism viruses and bacteria and viruses in buildings in the HVAC systems.”
By investigating the potential for the firm’s existing technology, the team at United Safety was able to implement the air purification system for use in vehicles already operating in the transportation space.
“It was our quickest turnaround of probably any product in my 15 years here,” says Mirabile. “We were able to accomplish that in less than six months by collaborating with strategic partners in this space and using a spirit of innovation.”
The work didn’t end there. Mirabile once again connected with the Fox School to more explore opportunities to expand the use of the Active Air air purification system.
Two teams of MBA students in the Fox Management Consulting capstone course were tasked with analyzing the potential for expansion of the Active Air system into other markets and developing a successful business strategy for that endeavor. One team focused on Latin America; the second targeted the European market.
The teams, led by a project executive, advisors and Fox faculty, produced two sets of strategic recommendations for entry into both markets and Mirabile has put some of those findings to work already.
“We’ve opened up several distribution channels into Europe, India and South Asia,” he says. “I would certainly say that the findings of the team on those projects, as well as the hiring of some of the people who worked on those teams, were integral to that strategy.”
While many of United Safety’s opportunities begin with identifying a situation that needs a solution, Mirabile credits the company’s innovative culture for its success in going one step further.
“You have to be willing to take the customer-centric, people-first approach,” he says. “That’s where purposeful innovation grows and becomes part of the culture.”