When R&D matchmaker NineSigma set up shop in 2000, a lot of companies were talking about open innovation in theory.
However, few of them had the infrastructure, tools, staff or legal know-how in place to support it very effectively in practice, recalls Kevin Stark, Ph.D., VP, technology solutions at NineSigma.
It’s one thing to have accepted that your R&D department does not have a monopoly on good ideas, and that working with others can get better products to market faster, but quite another to make collaboration part of your culture, org chart and product development process, he points out.
Breaking down the silos
In fact, a decade ago many large companies didn’t even have the infrastructure in place to talk to colleagues within their own organizations, never mind external collaborators, says Stark.
“A lot of the work we have done is helping companies leverage their own internal resources.”
Indeed, some of his clients' most exciting new products have been developed through breaking down the barriers within their own organizations and employing technology from one part of the business in a completely different division, he observes.
The go to guy
As for staffing arrangements to support open innovation, there is no winning formula says Stark, with some firms recruiting new dedicated OI teams and others promoting existing staff that are already unofficially recognized as ‘go to’ guys to new or expanded roles.
“There’s a ‘go to’ guy in any office - whether it’s in product development or commercial - he’s already making the connections.”
As for what open innovation is, some firms see it primarily as a way of finding new suppliers/partners when they face a challenge - or have identified a new opportunity - that is outside the skillset of their existing contacts/suppliers.
In this case, NineSigma can play matchmaker, talking to existing contacts in its vast network and publishing requests for proposals on its innovation platform.
However, to other companies, open innovation might mean setting up a venture fund to invest in start-ups with exciting technologies, he says.
While posting briefs about technical problems on their own ‘What are we looking for?’ websites is only one aspect of open innovation, Kraft’s collaboration kitchen , Unilever’s challenges and wants platform and General Mills’ G-WIN site send an important signal to the marketplace, he says.
“They let the world know they are open to collaboration and give people outside their organization a route into their company.
“However, you can’t just post up a bunch of your needs on a website and hope the right people will see it.”
Just how open should you be?
So what makes a good innovation brief, and just how 'open' do you need to be?
While clients were initially cautious about giving too much away about their plans online, they soon learned that vague briefs generate equally vague responses, he says. “The more detail, the better.”
Indeed, many briefs posted on online OI platforms are surprisingly specific to ensure respondents do not waste everyone’s time pitching solutions to problems they are not actually trying to solve, he says.
However, striking a balance between publishing briefs detailed enough to prompt meaningful responses and giving away your plans to the competition is a challenge, he admits.
“If you look at the requests for proposals (RFPs) that we post on behalf of clients on our open innovation platform, we usually won’t mention the name of the client, and we try to keep discussions fully non-confidential for as long as possible.”
Access to a ‘virtual goldmine of world-class organizations committed to driving innovation’
While NineSigma is best known as a matchmaking service for Fortune 500 companies - helping R&D teams at some of the world's biggest consumer packaged goods companies find partners and collaborators - it has also worked with smaller firms, government agencies and non-profits, says Stark.
“A key part of our strategy to enable more people to participate in open innovation is our new NineSights website, which is free to all innovation seekers and solution providers.
“Solution seekers ... can access a vetted pool of global subject-matter experts, inventors, entrepreneurs and researchers with searchable profiles highlighting their expertise.
“These solution providers will also find a virtual goldmine of world-class organizations committed to driving innovation through consultative engagements, licensing or acquisition of technologies, partnerships or investment opportunities.”
What is NineSigma?
NineSigma’s clients include Kraft, GSK, General Mills, IFF, Ferrero Rocher and Unilever, who use its services to solve immediate challenges, fill product pipelines, integrate new knowledge into their organizations, close development gaps, and improve financial performance.