News focus: Open innovation

Open innovation requires evolutionary change, says General Mills

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: General mills, Patent

Developing an open innovation program that works takes tenacity on
the part of a food manufacturer, and serendipity will always have a
part to play, says the head of General Mill's Worldwide Innovation
Network (G-WIN).

Jeff Bellairs was appointed to director of external innovation at General Mills three years ago, but it was only a year ago this month that the company put the G-WIN face on the program. The concept of open innovation began being bandied about the food industry in the 1990s, but the idea of collaboration with external entrepreneurs, inventors, universities and other food companies is appearing increasingly attractive in a market where speed to market and accessing consumer niches is paramount. In fact, General Mills' G-WIN program covers three different aspects, all geared towards building relations with people who have special capabilities: a web portal for external people to approach the company with ideas; approaching innovation intermediaries, such as NineSigma, with specific problem or needs; and sending its own scouts out to trade shows to seek out new technologies. But Bellairs said that G-Win has been "an evolutionary change"​ for the company, and said that others considering throwing open their innovation programs may drop it and move on to the next big trend if they do not get the results they thought they would. "Most companies don't have the tenacity,"​ he said, adding that many food companies are "struggling with what an open innovation program looks like."​ General Mills' approach was to get some product to market as quickly as possible, so as to show the potential to upper management and get internal business partners on-side. The company has reported a several quick successes, including Fiber One Chewy Bars developed with an ingredient firm on an exclusive basis, and now said to be one of the top 10 grain bars on the market. Through a proprietary partnership with another company it was able to source a great-tasting new lower-sodium ingredient for its Progresso Reduced Sodium soups. General Mills claims 300 percent increase in the number of innovation concepts submitted since it initiated G-WI - more than 200 in total. Bellairs said that for the first 18 months to two years, a lot of the innovations have come about though serendipity - meeting someone by chance, or taking a phone call. "Serendipity will always be an important part. It's like a treasure hunt. You never know what you will find." ​ In addition to this, though, General Mills is now looking to be more strategic. It is moving towards "ecosystem mapping​", which includes identifying the thought leaders and establishing dialogues with them. The IP maze ​ When it comes to collaborating on an external basis, one of the first questions that comes to mind is who owns the intellectual property. According to Bellairs, General Mills' web portal is distinguished from others out there by the fact that it is only for patented or patent-pending technologies, or if a product idea is already publicly disclosed (for instance, has already been on the market somewhere, so there is some real consumer feedback). "Otherwise there is potential for litigation down the line,"​ said Bellairs. He said if someone comes along with a new flavour of Cheerios, for instance, the G-WIN team would not be interested as it would be hard to distinguish what work is currently underway internally, and what has been done historically. When it does identify a potentially interesting idea or technology, people typically ask what the deal would look like, said Bellairs. He explained that the options are manifold, and they try to come up with a model that will work for both. "What does the partner need to scale up, and what can GM effectively do to create a bigger marketplace proposition?" ​ The answer could lie in investment in the technology company, buying the IP rights, licensing the rights, or refer to the corporate growth group to consider an acquisition.

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