It’s Only Logical to Apply Open Innovation Methods

Interview with Timo von Bargen
By Paul Arnold
Timo von Bargen is Open Innovation Manager at Clariant, a world leading specialty chemicals company, who have been leveraging open innovation with the aim of speeding up time to market of existing innovation projects and identifying new business opportunities.

In this interview with IdeaConnection, Timo talks about how Clariant is using open innovation, the benefits it is receiving and the importance of scoring early success stories.

Timo von BargenWhat benefits have you enjoyed from open innovation?

Firstly, we received some promising submissions of ideas, needs, or even solutions that led to some sample testing in the beginning, later to some signed NDAs as well as joint research projects and collaboration with externals. Secondly, open innovation has also connected us to unobvious others, not only those companies, institutes or organizations that we already have in our scope. For example, we got in touch with a start-up company in South Korea and research groups from smaller universities in the United States and China.

How do you leverage open innovation?

We follow two approaches: One is our online portal where we promote open innovation focus fields. Currently, it is ‘Smart Packaging’, which targets everything related to innovative packaging solutions. The other is using open innovation broker platforms for more concrete challenges. So far, this has proven to be a good mix. Depending on the questions you have in research you can choose which route to take. It’s only logical to apply open innovation methods.

Are there any open innovation services you wish existed?

Yes. I wish there was such thing as a meta search engine for open innovation broker platforms where you can get results from various platforms. There are more than 100 broker platforms and various other tools. It would be really interesting to get an overview and comparison of who is offering what. In North America and maybe Europe it is possible to get an overview, but in other regions of the world, for example China, it seems impossible. I mean, everybody is talking about China, but open innovation in China is not well documented on the internet. We at Clariant would like to focus more on regional challenges in regions like India, China and Southeast Asia, but this is not easy.

You mentioned the large number of open innovation brokers, how do you decide which one to use?

In the very beginning we looked at a lot of broker platforms and talked to the people behind them. We considered the community size and the expertise in order to find out which research fields are covered and to learn more about the background of the innovators registered on the platforms. Other aspects – which, I think, are often underestimated – are costs and the contract concept. Cost is one thing, but also the contract concept. So, how are the IP related issues and processes designed? That is quite important and there are huge differences among the business models of the respective platforms.

Is there a widespread adoption of open innovation in your industry?

Yes. Well, at least everybody is talking about it. But in the end there often isn’t a clear process behind it.

If you look at some corporate open innovation platforms or landing pages, it’s often only a landing page inviting external innovators – ‘just approach us with your ideas’. But often there are no concrete challenges behind it and it’s not clear what the benefits of a collaboration might be. There is no information on IP. Does the company expect the external innovator to share confidential information already at the very beginning? If so, how is this information protected? Such questions are really important for a start-up or a research group and they are often not communicated.

So what is the process when a submission is made through your portal?

The first thing we do at Clariant’s Open Innovation Office is to look at the submission and conduct a kind of sanity check just to see if it is somehow in scope or whether it is off topic. After that, we discuss which internal unit or which expert group is most likely to have an interest in it. Then we assign it to this expert group and from that point they have a maximum of 15 working days to come up with an evaluation of the submission. Normally, the teams react even quicker.

They decide whether they want to follow up on the submission, or if they want to ‘park’ it since there is no current interest in the topic. They can also recommend to reassign it to a different internal expert group which might be more suitable.

Depending on the outcome, we as the Open Innovation Office get in contact with the external submitter and give them feedback about the decision. We also stay in contact during the whole process.

Looking to the future now, do you have an idea of what might be the next big thing in open innovation?

Everybody is talking about big data and data crawling etc. For example, consolidating data sources or information from different vendors, platforms and institutes on start-ups, challenges and open innovation in general. I think here we might see something IT driven, so it will become easier to find existing information for your problem. The operational part will probably be more automated and supported by IT. Also, contrary to that, there is a trend for offline networks in open innovation. There are more and more conferences on the topic. Face-to-face exchange of experiences is necessary and will increase.

Is big data something that you are looking into or using?

Yes, we are starting to do that. We have a department called Scientific Information Management. Open innovation is not necessarily what they do, but it is quite closely connected. For example, if a research group is facing a problem, they are the ones to look for existing information. They search all the patents and databases, and if they don’t find anything then we at the Open Innovation Office might eventually start entering the question on broker platforms or on our portal. So I would say we already use big data in some way.

And finally, how would you sum up your experience so far with open innovation?

I think we are still on a learning curve – and probably we will always be –, but we have already made some great findings. It was good to have some early success stories and to be able to communicate them internally.

Once you have those examples, suddenly open innovation gains momentum. Now, the internal business units approach us with topics they consider suitable for an open innovation approach. Only two years ago we were the ones to remind them to consider open innovation as a tool to make their innovation more efficient or more effective.

So that’s a neat result.

Yes. In the end I think it’s all about communication, both internally and externally. We are currently also re-launching our internal innovation community, which is a platform where you can share thoughts and ideas and follow up on them. Moreover, we have a network of internal experts where you can find experts based on their competencies and skills. Today, it is really easy to set up networking tools in the professional context, because everyone is using social networks in their private lives.

Just as important as the internal community is our focus on building up an external network where we can stay in direct contact with our external community. An interactive exchange is necessary for a better and continuous understanding about what they need and what they do. As part of that we expanded our Social Media activities and rolled out our own Twitter channel @ClariantOI in November.

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