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The Future

Why We Need Open Innovation For Our Food System

Have you heard of OI – open innovation? If you think it means openly sharing ideas and technologies in industry, you’re on the right track, but it’s much more than just that. I sat down with Andy Zynga, CEO of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Food, to learn how open innovation can help solve challenges in our food system.

Why is open innovation so necessary for transforming our food system?

The answer to this lies in the nature of what open innovation really is. Open innovation is about organisations going outside their own four walls to find and inspire technologies and knowledge – moving away from the old “silo mentality”. You can find the solutions to your problems from outside your own technology domain. It’s actually a proven empirical fact that breakthrough innovation is more probable when you repurpose an existing innovation from other technology domains!

We all know the food system needs solutions to pressing problems, right? There’s already a lot of innovation going on in different sectors of the agri-food industry, but you can argue that potential solution providers might be lingering in other industries, like medical, chemical, you name it. Open innovation is about leaving your comfort zone and talking to people from other industries who might have a really, really good answer. 

One example I found a few years ago was with avocado growers, who had the challenge of assessing how ripe an avocado is at any given time. This is important for logistics, shipping, shelf life, etc. One avocado grower had gone outside his own four walls and told me, “In the auto industry, there’s this device that checks how stable a steering wheel is.” He said that that particular auto tool has a very soft touch and can be applied to assessing the ripeness of avocados, which he did. Lo and behold, that is now the prevailing technology to determine the ripeness of an avocado! So that's just one example of open innovation from the auto industry applied in the avocado industry.

What would you need to kick start open innovation?

The starting point is always a ‘technology need’. Your organisation has to have a well-defined problem that you can’t or don't want to solve with your own resources, either because you don't have the capabilities or capacity to solve it in-house. The problem with looking outside your own industry is that you don't really know where to look. So that’s where two things come in handy: a ‘problem statement’ and a service provider that connects different industries with solutions – like NinaSigma, the business I ran for ten years.

The important part of a problem statement is to discuss the technology need – without mentioning the industry or the application. For example, one of our clients was looking for a way to reduce wrinkles in shirts when they come out of the dryer. This was the problem statement: “Our client, a large multinational, is looking for a way to reduce surface tension in an organic material.” There is no mention of the application (i.e. wrinkles), just purely focusing on the technology. Guess what happened? A person reached out – he had developed a polymer for integrated circuit research. This became a solution for the company because it turned out that spraying this polymer technology on cotton fibre relaxed it! 

A good problem statement doesn’t preclude others from submitting solutions. If you mention your industry or how you want to apply a solution specifically, people from different industries might be discouraged and think, “This is not something I can answer,” even if they might have a technology that could be a solution.

What barriers do we still need to overcome to reach open innovation? 

Just to be clear on this, open innovation is not a state you achieve, it's more a tool you use - you can either use it successfully or unsuccessfully. 

  1. The first barrier is that many organisations have the ‘Not-Invented-Here Syndrome’. The mentality is, “We’ve spent our entire lives researching, developing, and innovating in this sector. This is where the smartest minds in the business are—why should we look for or engage with outsiders' solutions?” 
  2. Another barrier is often the lack of support from top management in the organisation. If you really want to make a cultural change, it has to be sponsored by the top. Of course, one part is finding the solutions, but it's another part to integrate them into the business. If there are blocking factors from inside the organisation, that could be a problem. 
  3. A third barrier is funding – you need to have a sufficient budget available for the people who can come up with the solutions.  Nobody will submit technologies for free, just for a good cause. 

Then, wouldn’t patents also be a barrier to open innovation? Aren’t trade secrets common within business and research – particularly within the same industry? 

It's a great question and one often asked in the open innovation business. The conventional wisdom is that going to the market faster is probably more important than having a patent because patents are not a guarantor for financial success. In fact, patents are expensive to maintain—they could cost $5-10k. So that's another reason why a lot of businesses turn to open innovation.

For example, many companies have patents for technologies and inventions that just end up on their shelves but might be useful solutions for others to use. Through open innovation, companies can get license fees for these patented technologies. Henry Chesbrough’s book “Open Innovation: the New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology” mentions IBM's annual income of $1.4 billion just from licence fees of unused technologies that they had developed but never used for their own products or services! 

Of course, in some instances, patents can be a barrier, but patents can also help connect different industries to new innovations. I actually know of quite a few open innovation practitioners and large firms that are saying they'd much rather have a firm that already has a patent. It means they can negotiate about a protected technology, rather than just an idea that leaves a little bit of room for possible legal complications later. 

Can open innovation also be applied to less economically beneficial problems within (or created by) our food system, like minimizing environmental impacts?

So, OI works particularly well when you have tangible products, like robotics, sensors, ingredients, etc. When we’re talking about the environment, the Canadian Carbon Emission Management Board had a huge project to find solutions to take CO2 out of the air and convert it into useful products. NineSigma ran a Grand Challenge, a big prize tournament that brought together different stakeholders and industries, with 30 million Canadian dollars of prize money. Over five years, we found some fabulous solutions in tangible products that could be produced from that CO2 – solutions in food, construction and other industries. 

You’ve already mentioned the need for the involvement of top management, researchers and innovators, as well as service providers. Who or what else would we need for open innovation to be successful?

It's important that you keep the lawyers out of the discussion as long as you can. When lawyers are involved early on, deals tend to happen much slower - particularly when a smaller player talks to a larger player. When there are lawyers involved, that's often a bit of a barrier for them to even want to collaborate. So, instead, you’ve got to have a commercial negotiator. These are the people who understand the mechanics of how to make deals with solution providers rather than legal frameworks. 

You also need tech scouts: somebody from the organisation or a service provider, who finds different technologies and connects them with the people who need solutions. But you sometimes may need additional support or knowledge, and that’s where a consortium with different types of organisations (i.e. universities or other industry stakeholders) could be very helpful. It can create an ecosystem of different people that helps bring the solution into reality. 

But how would you bring together these different organisations if they typically work in silos? 

Well, this is a huge part of what we do here at EIT Food. We’re one of those ecosystems that systematically applies open innovations. We have a growing network of different partners, from key industry players to agrifood startups, research centres, and universities across Europe. We have online and offline spaces—from our events to EIT Food ‘marketplaces’ and regional innovation hubs—for these different organisations to connect on a pan-European and local level. 

Another barrier to open innovation that I should mention is lack of trust between different organisations. A lot of times you have smaller players that could be solution providers for larger ones that are looking for solutions. You need spaces for them to get acquainted with each other so that trust can grow. We all need to work together as allies, as a team, to make our food system better. 

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