Open Innovation trumps not invented here

18 Oct 2012 | Viewpoint
Advertising its ‘wants’ online has unlocked a fresh seam of ideas and is motivating in-house researchers at Unilever, says Roger Leech, the company’s Open Innovation Scouting Director

Wanted: new technologies which break down fatty deposits left on clothes and hard surfaces in an efficient, odourless and environmentally-friendly way. The solution could be incorporated as an ingredient in the detergent formulation or work as a pre-treatment application.

Suggestions for novel approaches to dealing with this long-running laundering problem should be submitted to consumer products giant Unilever via its open innovation portal.

This ‘want’ was advertised for the first time on Unilever’s open innovation portal last week. Following on from the launch of the portal in March, Unilever has received over 1,000 ideas for how to crack a range of other problems. Roger Leech, Open Innovation Scouting Director said he has been “very pleasantly surprised” by the quality of the submissions. “We are now pursuing 6 – 7 per cent of these with internal teams,” he told Science|Business.

While he was unable to give details about successful ideas – some of which are still being scoped, while others are under confidentiality agreements - Leech says, “We have accessed innovation we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Looking outside the walls

Of course, Unilever has a long history of working with external partners, including suppliers, small businesses, universities and non-governmental organisations, to develop new technologies and products, and maximise the returns on its €1 billion per annum R&D budget.

The company began a systematic push to look outside its own walls with the establishment of a dedicated open innovation team in 2009. Since then, the number of research projects which involve external collaboration has increased from 25 per cent to around 60 per cent.

However, the launch of the online portal marked the first time Unilever had shared its research projects in such an open forum.

The ideas that have been submitted are from “a vast variety of different groups” ranging from global suppliers looking to promote their materials, to individual consumers with concepts for new products, Leech says. Ideas are coming in from around the world.

For ideas of interest that Unilever wants to purse, the company discusses how to go forward with development with the submitter. An early check is made to establish the intellectual property position, and Leech says, “It’s good if people have got IP; if not we need to be more careful.”

Patent trolls

To date, there is no evidence that publishing its list of wants is attracting patent trolls to hoover up likely intellectual property. “We saw this as a risk, but we’ve not seen it in reality,” says Leech.

The wants listed when the portal opened are open-ended and general – so for example, ‘Change consumer behaviour’; ‘Storing renewable energy’; ‘Preserving food naturally’. The three wants advertised for the first time last week are more technical and specific. In addition to technologies for breaking down fatty deposits, Unilever is looking for ways to reduce the amount of sugar in ready-to-drink teas without affecting the flavour, and ideas on how to stabilise natural red colour for use in fruit and dairy products.

“We have in house teams with an active interest in these areas and a number of technologies they are working on. But they may have missed opportunities,” Leech says.

While there’s no explicit reference to a ‘not invented here’ syndrome, Leech explains that one of the main motivations behind setting up the portal was to raise understanding and acceptance of externally-sourced innovation among Unilever’s 6,000-strong team of in-house researchers. “The primary objective was to address that internal mind set of willingness,” he says.

Roger Leech is Open Innovation Scouting Director at Unilever plc

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