The new R&D: 6 successful open innovation programs & crowdsourcing contests

A headshot of Sharon McIntyre

by Sharon McIntyre

Cartoon lightbulb with gear in the middle surrounded by an orbit of test tubes, microscopes, and particles.

Welcome to our new content series for innovation leaders, exploring open innovation and how to win at crowdsourcing in a social, mobile world.

Perhaps you’re the first ever Chief Innovation Officer at your organization. Not only are you new, but you’re the new person whose mandate is to disrupt the status quo.

This is no easy task, especially when everything and anything is defined as “innovation” in our popular culture.

In a mobile and social world, the definition of innovation is especially elusive. Everything about our current technological trends suggest that companies should be diving headfirst into embracing all manner of social media and mobile technology. In fairness, it would be hard to blame any organization for thinking that the key to open innovation lay with these platforms when we’re witnessing the following trends:

  • Increasing engagement, and in some cases exclusive engagement, between customers and brands on social media
  • Usage of social media channels and chatbots for customer support
  • Growing adoption of “social listening” strategies in which brands track customer conversations on specific topics and find a way to insert themselves into the conversation
  • “Ephemeral content” such as stories or polls through channels like Snapchat and Instagram Stories
  • Participation in digital hangouts, predominately through mobile devices
  • Usage of tools like Slack and Yammer for internal employee communication, collaboration, and project management

All of these are ways to interact with customers and gain customer and employee participation through open innovation projects. But they do not constitute open innovation on their own. While mobile devices and digital hangouts can certainly be used as effective tools to facilitate open innovation and crowdsourcing projects, their usage alone doesn’t equal open innovation.

Open innovation is the use of external ideas, fuelled by internal information, to create and innovate within an organization. In other words, it’s about companies capitalizing on their treasure chests of knowledge and intellectual property that they just don’t have the time to utilize. Whether this is through joint ventures or licensing, smart organizations know that some of the best rainmakers lay outside their doors.

While variations of open innovation were being practiced in some shape or form throughout the twentieth century, the concept was crystallized in Henry Chesbrough’s book “Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology”.

With that said, you’re probably wondering, “What on earth does an open innovation project look like?”

Before we launch into the specifics of managing open innovation challenges or ideas competitions, let’s quickly get acquainted with a few of the most successful crowdsourcing projects of the past five years.

H&M’s Vision of a Waste-Free Fashion Industry

White text over a leafy background that reads "H&M Conscious Collection"

Eager to accelerate the process of reducing waste in the fashion industry, the H&M Foundation started the Global Change Award, an annual innovation competition. The contest invites people from around the world to submit “game-changing” ideas that support sustainability efforts in fashion. In 2017, the award went to Grape Leather 2, a company that uses the remnants of the winemaking process to create vegetal leather.

It was a remarkable innovation considering the impact that traditional leather production has on the environment. The contest rounded up a total of five finalists, including Grape Leather, who won prize money as well as access to a one-year accelerator program to help them move their process into large-scale production.

Nokia Explores The Potential of the Internet of Things

Detailed diagram of "People & Things"

As a communications and internet technology company, it comes as no surprise that Nokia would want to stay on top of the growing Internet of Things. Since the potential of the Internet of Things spans several industries, uses, and geographies, Nokia took the strategic approach of finding great ideas for Internet of Things applications through their Open Innovation Challenge.

They called for innovative IoT ideas that could improve the world’s health, safety, and well-being. Nokia received a number of entries, and found their winner in Continuum Technologies, a U.K. startup that produces fabric with embedded nanotechnology, which monitors athletic performance and provides real-time monitoring of health data.

GE Brings a Restaurant Luxury to the Kitchen Table

Ice machine with diagram describing its features.

Once upon a time, you could only get nugget ice from restaurants who had the expensive machinery needed to produce this chewable version. GE’s open innovation platform, FirstBuild, was designed to source ideas from the GE community of superfans and innovators. One of the most popular demands on the site was the ability to have nugget ice at home. Through collaborating with the community via its FirstBuild initiative, GE determined that there was enough demand for this icemaker and challenged its digital community to come up with a design, leading to the successful Opal Nugget Ice Maker.

GE’s latest innovation project is Giddy, an open innovation community. It is a variation of the community that created the Opal Nugget Ice Maker and consists of tinkerers and hobbyists. Businesses present their challenges to the community and Giddy facilitates any potential collaborations with submission criteria and project coordination.

Clorox Successfully Launches Cleaning Products for Caregivers of the Elderly

Clorox open innovation definition.

Clorox identified the elderly population as a relatively untapped market segment for their cleaning products. Their goal was to launch products geared towards this demographic, but they realized that their internal capabilities were not properly equipped to launch this project on their own. So, the Clorox team turned to an open innovation process by creating a website where an online community of caregivers could congregate, collaborate, and access tips for taking care of their loved ones.

Rather than developing a product for caregivers and marketing it aggressively, Clorox posed the question, “How can we make cleaning easier for caregivers?”, providing multiple paths to the solution, guided by consumers.

In addition to collaborating with consumers through a digital platform, Clorox partnered with caregiver organizations who contributed to the online platform as well as talking with retailers and government agencies.

Bosch Bolsters Its Sustainability Efforts with Energy Storage Research

Model of future trends of BOSCH batteries.

Bosch wished to find sustainable energy storage solutions, and it was particularly focused on getting on top of the e-mobility trend. While the team understood the nature of its problem - finding non-electrochemical (i.e. battery-powered) storage technology - it wasn’t sure which available technologies would be most appropriate for its goals.

They were also curious about technologies outside their industry that may suit their needs. In order to receive potential solutions from as diverse a crowd as possible, Bosch launched an open innovation contest. It was a successful project because it propelled Bosch to being a leader in the energy storage discussion. It also bolstered Bosch’s knowledge base and network in this emerging area.

Ford Creates a Data-Driven Innovation Playground

Open XC

Ford decided it should focus on software and electronics in its innovation efforts. But the area of smart mobility includes a number of variables (i.e. weather conditions, current physical/digital infrastructure) that would pose challenges. They established an open standard called OpenXC with Ford data sets to attract hardware and software innovators who would form an open innovation community.

This has allowed Ford to develop a dynamic, vibrant community that Ford can ultimately shape and guide towards meeting its goals, saving the automobile company the immense time, effort, and resources that go into maintaining several bilateral partnerships or trying to insert itself into existing innovation communities.

Same approach, different Challenge

These are open innovation challenges that differ in industry, differ in desired outcome, and differ in structure, but they all tap into the power of external networks.

In some cases, the project was to find a concrete solution to a problem. In others, it was to develop a network of innovators from a number of industries so a company could position itself to successfully meet long-term objectives.

Despite the differences in specificity, each one of these projects included a concerted effort to offer outflows of information or resources to facilitate the open innovation project. Rather than an isolated conversation or flurry of digital interactions, these were purposeful projects with bidirectional information flows.

In part 2 of our open innovation series, we'll examine the most common crowdsourcing and collaborative innovation mistakes to avoid.

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