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Gianfranco Zaccai: Taking Innovation to the Next Level

Continuum founder Gianfranco Zaccai in his Newton office.

Continuum founder Gianfranco Zaccai in his Newton office.

“Please, don’t call it just a design firm,” says Continuum founder Gianfranco Zaccai as we walk through open space offices, labs and workshops for prototype making, peppered with sleek displays showcasing never-seen-before products complete with an explanation of what they are. “They all do, you all do… journalists usually have a hard time grasping what we are really up to here.”

Yes, the fact that the 200 employee-strong firm Zaccai created from scratch in his Boston apartment 30 years ago was called “Design Continuum” until a few years ago can be misleading. And when I find out that among the misled are The New York Times, CNN and the Italian national daily “La Repubblica” I feel a little better.

Yet, this 67 year old, tall, energetic and optimistic entrepreneur has a point: his brainchild does much more than making stuff look good and work better. A modern groundbreaker in product and service innovation, its list of customers range from Procter and Gamble to Philips, from Gillette to Samsung — basically matching the S&P 500 list of world’s manufacturers.

“What we are about – and always have been – is innovation,” explains Zaccai. “Every product, every system, every service… everything has room for improvement. No matter how complex or how simple. You see, products and services are created considering only some aspects of the total experience. We try to think about all aspects, specifically from a human perspective, considering all the people who have to interact with a product or a service: customers, people who deal with them, and ultimately the company that needs to produce it, which, at the end of the day, are the ones who pay us.

“Some companies do it, to an extent, but very often, companies have their own preconceptions and have internal reasons for not changing. And if they do look, they may not necessarily see what we see: they do a lot of focus groups, but focus groups don’t say much that is useful for innovation. You can’t just ask people what they want: you need to do your own detective work.”

In this sense, the Newton building where Continuum’s headquarters are located (as unassuming from the outside as it is stylish once you enter the door) is a showcase of success stories in the form of products, carefully choreographed across a giant wall full of pictures of customers as well as common folks – allegedly the final users of Continuum’s creations.

The range of devices and objects is indeed impressive and truly runs the gamut of human activity: the mop with reusable pads, developed by observing people cleaning their house; the tetra-pack packaging for power drinks, designed after a worldwide study on how people drink from containers; the wearable, minuscule insulin dispenser for diabetic children produced after considering not only the dangers and the discomfort of the classic insulin pump but also the embarrassment of carrying it around; the portable kit for AIDS detection – a golden tool in certain areas of the world where traveling to a hospital is often a complicated ordeal; the “self-cleaning” bathroom; the modular hospital room with parts not linked to one another so that they can be replaced individually as technology advances… just to mention a few.

Of course, the place is also full of other gizmos and future successful products – they hope – being developed. For obvious reasons, these are top secret. Among them are even things that might be used by the military, however, Zaccai cares to explain, the company does not do weapons, or devices aimed to directly harm people.

Yet, the biggest success story in the building is, well, Zaccai himself.

Gianfranco Zaccai

Gianfranco Zaccai

Born in Trieste in 1947, right after his parents fled ethnic cleansing in Istria (the Italian province that fell in Yugoslavian hands after the end of World War II), Zaccai grew up in Brescia, Lombardy, in a time where post-war economic hardship was even harder for Istrian refugees. At the time, although Italian to the core and for the most part not at all involved in politics, natives of Istria were still considered fascists, or seen, at best, as interlopers. Then, when Zaccai was nine, the family moved to Syracuse, New York, in search of a better future. “It was terrible,” he recalls. “The food, the weather, the social life … terrible, at least compared to what I was used to in Italy!”

Despite the hurdles, he adjusted and managed to get into college, obtaining a degree in design and a second one in architecture, which eventually allowed him to move back to his beloved Italy in 1971, this time as an employee of an American medical devices firm that ran its European operations from an office in Milan.

“The first product I designed – a blood gas analyzer – got an applause from the board when I presented it,” he remembers. As he starts speaking about the past, after speaking so much about the future and the endless promises of technology, his tone of voice gains a healthy touch of nostalgia and slightly changes from the standard and somehow robotic, enthusiastic positive-no-matter-what entrepreneur to the more genuine, passionate, visionary human being he really is. “But that idea took years to implement, simply because nobody was really listening to the feedback from the field,” he continues. “I remember going around the world to see how the device was actually used and the epiphany actually occurred in Japan: I talked for a while to the Chief Pathologist, at a Tokyo hospital, about the product and how it was used; then he excused himself for a meeting, and as soon as he left, a lab technician, who had been quiet all along, cleared his throat and said: ‘Sir, now let me show you what really happens!”

And that (not only listening to experts and actual users but actually observing the latter in action) has been the philosophy behind Zaccai’s success. From 1983, when he started out with two customers and one employee (“paid, at first, with a credit line” points out Zaccai, at this point basking – and rightly so – in the classic pride of the self-made man), to today, Continuum has grown to become the world leader in its field, (product and service innovation, “not simply design,” as Zaccai tirelessly points out), with offices in six countries. According to the Zaccai, all offices will soon be connected digitally at such a level of video and audio quality that it will create one giant virtual office spanning five continents and 24 time zones.

While saying all this, he takes the cups we had (real) espresso in, and puts them in the dishwasher, then picks up the open sugar packets and throws them in the trash… which spares me the last set of questions about his actual involvement in his operation at this point in his, and his company’s, life. At 67, Gianfranco Zaccai looks, sounds and acts as if he were just getting started.

For more on the company, please visit http://continuuminnovation.com/

About Stefano Salimbeni

Stefano is a Boston-based freelance reporter, correspondent and producer for Italy’s national TV network RAI. Over the past 15 years he has produced more than 800 “Italian-angled” news stories and features from New England and from around the United States for RAI’s international channel, RAI Italia, broadcast to over 60 million viewers of Italian origins or of Italian descent living outside of Italy. He also assisted, and occasionally still does, RAI’s main correspondents in producing news stories and special reports during major news events. For the past three years, Stefano has also been the US correspondent for Famiglia Cristiana, one of Italy’s most widely circulated national magazines. He came to Boston in 1996 to earn a master’s degree and fulfill a lifelong dream of being a journalist. Stefano’s work can be viewed on his personal website, www.stefanosalimbeni.com.