Open innovation update: Unilever wants tools to provide a ‘radically new view’ of consumers; Kraft Heinz seeks new sustainable oil sources

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Open innovation update: Unilever, Kraft Heinz , Mondelez

Related tags Open innovation Food

Unilever is searching for radical new ways to understand what consumers really want, Kraft Heinz is looking for novel sources of sustainable oils, and Mondelez is on a mission to find ‘label friendly’ natural mold inhibitors and low-cost ways to tackle the theft of chewing gum from stores.  

The requests – posted on NineSigma’s open innovation site NineSights​ – show that the world’s biggest food manufacturers are increasingly looking beyond the four walls of their own R&D departments to find partners to help them create more label-friendly, sustainable, and healthy products.

While open innovation (OI) might not be the hot topic on the food conference circuit that it was a couple of years ago, that’s not because food companies have lost interest, but is more likely a reflection of the fact that it’s starting to become standard operating procedure for many companies, NineSigma director Dr Stephen Clulow told FoodNavigator-USA.

“The food and beverage industry is actually way ahead of many other industries when it comes to open innovation and they are also getting much better at integrating it into their routine daily operations ​[making collaboration with external parties part of the culture, org chart and product development process]."

We can immediately identify people with relevant experience in our database

In general, OI works better when you have people dedicated to it, said Dr Clulow, whether that’s in the form of central OI teams that work with brand and product teams, or having OI experts embedded within product teams. “Either way, OI works best when you have dedicated champions,” ​he added.

As for the role that match-making services such as NineSigma are playing in facilitating collaboration, said Dr Clulow, “The OI and crowdsourcing scene has evolved considerably in the past few years."

But while there are more companies proffering their services than ever before, NineSigma has retained its first mover advantage, he claimed.

Indeed, NineSigma – which was helping firms engage in open innovation long before the phrase was even coined – has one of the most experienced teams in the industry and a killer database of more than 2.5 million contacts, especially in adjacent industries, which can enable food & beverage clients to find novel solutions to problems by approaching them from a novel angle, hr added.

“We can immediately identify people with relevant experience in our database that will not be in that client’s current network.”

Five myths about open innovation

1: Open Innovation means always being open:​ No it doesn't, says NineSigma: "You're open only at strategic moments when it makes sense."

2: Open Innovation replaces internal R&D: ​No it doesn't, says NineSigma: "You need internal resources ready to review and integrate the solutions you find through the process into your product development cycle."

3: IP will be compromised when practicing OI​No it won't, says NineSigma: "You always start out in a non-confidential way. Only after you are convinced the solutions are the one you want, do you enter into an NDA or CDA." 

4: You will find ready-made products you can take to market immediately through OI: ​Not generally, says NineSigma: "The real power of OI comes when you are looking for IP that will become part of a greater whole that you then take to market."

5: OI requires huge resources and investments​Not necessarily, says NineSigma: "There are many companies that use OI to solve particular strategic and urgent needs in their product development cycle and use OI to find proven processes that require minimal resources to implement."

Defining the problem

On other occasions, the solution may be found within the food industry, but in a different arm of it, he said. “For example, Mondelez was looking for something that would help with preservation in baked goods and we were able to find them a solution developed in the pasta industry that they were able to implement very quickly.”

NineSigma also has a lot of experience when it comes to coaching clients to craft their requests in such a way that they focus on the fundamental nature of the problem they are trying to solve, without necessarily revealing the application area that interests them, which means they could attract solutions from a broader field of technologies or industries than had they narrowly focused their search too early in the process, he said.

“We normally advise clients to reveal what they want, but not necessarily how they would use the ingredient or technology.”

You should never reveal any confidential information  

While some companies prefer to handle everything in-house once potential partners have been identified via NineSigma, many others seek the firm’s help to guide them through the OI process, he said.

“Sometimes we’ll facilitate meetings, organize agendas, help the partners get to know each other, and help our clients work out what the roadmap might be to integrate that innovation into their company might be.”

While both sides should seek legal advice to ensure that any partnership is a win-win for both parties, he said, the rule of thumb for preliminary conversations is simple: “You should never reveal any confidential information at the early stages of the process.”

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