Doing Things Much Better than the Way they are Currently Being Performed

Interview with Rajiv Vaid Basaiawmoit
By Paul Arnold
Rajiv Vaid Basaiawmoit is Head of Open Innovation at the AU-Centre for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Denmark’s Aarhus University.

He is a biophysicist with an MBA who oversees university and industry open innovation activities. One of his main areas of focus is to improve the way both parties work with each other, removing barriers that prevent easy collaboration.

In this interview with IdeaConnection, Rajiv talks about his work at the university and how industry, academia, government and society in general can work together to drive changes. He started by discussing why his university’s approach to open innovation needed some changes.

Raij Vaid BasaiwmoitWhat I keep seeing at the university is a lot of piecemeal activities going on. Right now, if you think about how industry currently collaborates with the university on a project they need help with, they’ll search their own network, or look up a LinkedIn network or call someone in the university. And that someone may also try to find someone, but it’s very random. Also, it depends upon the expertise of the people receiving the phone call as well as the people asking the questions. Therefore, success is very random in that sense.

We’ve had one or two good hits, but many other leads have just been lost because of no proper follow up. So from both the university perspective and industry perspective that’s a waste of time and resources. I noticed that gap and thought we needed to improve the way we connect to industry and to general society outside. Everyone recognizes that the university is a knowledge base, it’s a knowledge resource, but they see the university as a black box that basically cannot be accessed. So I said, maybe we can change this and make the university a little more transparent and also let industry connect with the university in a much more organic way than the random way it has been.

And how are you doing that?

At the center, we started to make a database of all the researchers who are there as well as a database of all the industries who were trying to reach out to us. Then it was about trying to understand what it is that they are actually interested in and why they are reaching out to us.

So the way we have decided to go about it is basically we said, if an industry person calls us we need to have people who know who to talk to at each of the faculties, instead of one semi-autonomous unit trying to do it. And then we have another department called the Department for Research and External Relationships who are also trying to encourage this.

But what we see is that it’s not only about connecting people, it’s also about making sure that it’s a two-way relationship and not one-way, which most of the time innovation ended up being. I think that is the biggest problem I see with open innovation at the moment. It’s not viewed as a two-way street, but in general as a one way street where one is providing and the other one is receiving.

And as a result of what you’re doing, are you seeing some of the changes take place that you hoped would happen?

Yes. So considering that we are a large university and a bureaucratic organization it does take time. But we have seen smaller steps that have happened in that direction. For example, a partnership that we have been able to secure with LEO Pharmaceutical, a company based in Copenhagen.

They have been trying to figure out how to open up their capabilities and get access to the university’s capabilities. That was a successful project in the sense that LEO came out and said we would like to collaborate with you and understand open innovation better, because they don’t really know how to deal with it. There are too many definitions and from a pharmaceutical standpoint, the word “open” is very scary for them, but they still wanted to take it up.

They had a project where they wanted to try and open up their assay library of compounds to anyone without the other party having to reveal what compound they wanted to test against. Now that’s a very significant step, because normally anytime a researcher wants access to an assay library they have to go through a big process of writing a statement of interest and sit down with legal teams from both sides. And they would both make an agreement about which type of data sharing is going to happen and why it is going to happen. So, it’s a very tedious process and basically you might also end up with no result at the end of it.

LEO said we are open to having your research team come up with your own compounds that you use within your lab and test them within our assay library. So now, we do not sit and discuss contracts or legal terms until we actually find a hit and basically there’s a match.

So, if there’s a match between a university compound X and industry compound Y present in the assay library then it only makes sense for the legal teams to come together.

LEO has moved the legal barrier from the start to a bit later part of the process. So you let the reaction happen and if there’s a hit then we will sit down and discuss. And that’s very new for pharmaceutical industries also very new for the university.

The work you’re doing with open innovation and bridging the gap between industry and academia, is it completed or a work in progress?

It’s a work in progress. I do not do research on open innovation. What I do is try to apply the open innovation principles to basically have better interaction between the university and industry.

This whole thing about university and industry and society coming together used to be a model called the Triple Helix. Now the Triple Helix Model has been there for a while and has three main stakeholders working together - the university, the government and the industry. But we’re now moving to the Quadruple Helix, basically we’ll be adding a fourth strand. And that fourth strand is civic society. So actually involving the society in which we live in is part of this process.

Do you encounter any resistance to what you’re doing?

I won’t call it resistance in the sense that you normally hear about it. If you think about the model on which a university is built, knowledge sharing and open access are basically inherent. So if you talk about openness and open sharing of data, it’s not something that you will meet with a wall of resistance, which you might for example at a very information sensitive company such as a pharmaceutical company.

But at the same time, there is a lack of understanding of what openness really is in the sense that when researchers think of it they say: “well, publishing research in journals isn’t that being open enough?” And that’s the kind of barrier that we’re trying to break. You may be publishing in journals but the papers might not be accessed by either industry or civic society. So there has to be another way for us to be able to share our knowledge with these stakeholders.

Are there open innovation services that you wish existed?

Yes, because what we are currently doing is trying to open up things much more within an existing system without changing too much of the system.

On a more wishful thinking note, I would like to have either an innovation office or maybe a complete open innovation department where people from industry and civic society could actually come by and talk to university researchers and find out what is going on in different parts of the university. So, giving people both the physical and the digital space in which they can just walk in and have conversations on anything that university people are doing. This would also mean that researchers would be putting forward their work in easy to understand concepts that people could look at and be inspired by.

And finally, with regard to open innovation, do you look to the future with confidence?

Yes I do because it’s a trend that’s being pushed forward not only by popular media or other things, but you also see it from students’ perspectives and from society’s perspective. Basically, that there is a demand for a better way to do things.

I worked with entrepreneurship and innovation, and within the context of open innovation, you cannot disentangle entrepreneurship from it, because it is the entrepreneurial mindset that can actually drive these types of open innovation processes.

Now, a lot of people might confuse entrepreneurship with just being about startup activities, whereas we look at an entrepreneurial mindset as one where you’re open to opportunities, you’re curious about things and really trying to find out what’s going on. Then it’s coupling that kind of curiosity with the drive to actually say we can do things much better than the way they are currently being done it.

One of the tenets of open innovation is tapping into the power of the crowd. But the crowd first and foremost has to believe that they have the power to contribute. That is where the entrepreneurial mindset steps in. It’s the combination of confidence in oneself, the accessibility to higher knowledge and the openness that comes from a) researchers being open about receiving ideas/suggestions/perspectives and b) the crowd having the confidence to contribute (without fear of ridicule) etc. Only then can we have true open innovation.

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