“Open innovation” has become one of the most popular business “buzzword” terms of the 21st century. Developed more than a decade ago by Henry Chesborough of the University of California, Berkeley, the concept is fairly straightforward: none of us has a monopoly on good ideas, so by working together and combining the best ideas from multiple sources we are more likely to come up with innovative solutions. The terminology and the academic focus may be new, but the approach has probably been applied since Neanderthals first got together to work out how to stop water seeping into their cave.
What has changed in recent years, however, is that commercial entities and public bodies such as Public Health England have really woken up to the opportunities that open innovation presents. The old days of the traditional corporate R&D laboratory or the government research establishment working in isolation are well and truly over. Scientists, software developers and managers working in such institutions are much more likely to be involved in international networks, hosting visitors and secondees from around the world, and running pilot projects with key customers than they are to be tinkering with their secret inventions late at night in lonely laboratories.
The principle of open innovation applies not only to inventions, but also to the route to market. Commercial companies increasingly realise that using their own sales forces to sell products and services may not always be the best route to market for new innovations which, in some cases, may threaten their traditional way of doing things, or they may not have the necessary skills. An innovation may be a great idea, but may not fit with the company’s strategy. An open innovation approach would suggest perhaps setting up a spinout company, licensing or franchising out the innovation, or working in partnership with others who may bring a different range of skills and experience.
Open innovation can encompass a broad range of approaches and techniques, including opportunities to improve open-source software, challenge-led innovation competitions, crowdsourcing, involvement of customers in design development and product pilots, and idea portals where inventive individuals can approach companies in a user-friendly way.
For an organisation like Public Health England, open innovation offers exciting opportunities to develop better solutions to public health problems, faster, and at lower cost to the taxpayer, and offers new routes to have our own innovations widely adopted. We actively participate in a range of networks with our counterparts in industry, academia, and other public bodies in the UK and internationally. Many of the European Union funding bodies explicitly require the development of a network of institutions. We participate in challenge-led competitions, both to respond to challenges set by others (for example the Technology Strategy Board) and to set our own challenges (for example innovative apps that encourage healthy choices). We are proud to work with others in applying innovations in practice, whether through commercial relationships with industry or through partnerships with local authorities.
Of course open innovation is not without its challenges. Intellectual property rights have to be respected: innovations can be of great value and it is important that inventors and development partners are fairly rewarded. Innovations involving multiple participants can be complex to manage and can be expensive in terms of legal costs, for example.
In both private and public sectors, open innovation appears to be here to stay. How do you think open innovation can best address the challenges and opportunities of public health? What are the issues and aspirations you would most like to see being approached in this way?