To be, or not to be, involved with open innovation? That is the question today!

We all know that South African companies generally spend a tiny fraction of their budgets on R&D compared to international trends and figures. Also, sharing of information is sometimes inhibited (or prohibited) based on whom you work for and with whom you collaborate or with whom you compete. Shrinking budgets in a shrinking economy further drives down R&D-spend and, for young graduate entrants into the practice of food science & technology, you hit a wall with graffiti in the corridors of companies, saying: “Don’t ask for it, we do not have money for it!” And you know what? I think it may become part of your own mantra and understanding (or misunderstanding) of how R&D and innovation is stifled by financial realities. You then become accustomed to the fact that there is no way around this.

Being in the position I am in, I see this also with SMMEs in the industry, although on a different scale and with different outcomes. When potential clients approach us with novel (or sometimes pretty mundane) ideas, they are usually extremely hesitant to divulge information in order for us to help them. It quite amuses me sometime to see how cagey they are with information and it is only after persuading them of our honest intentions that they will, under a standard non-disclosure agreement, share information. I fully understand this and also that it is a function of being a victim of intellectual property theft before or not understanding that, without sharing with us, we cannot help them. In some cases we are under-fed with important information while we are busy helping them, further delaying progress or a satisfactory outcome.

The open innovation concept, which started in the early 19060s, is not something always easily understood by all firms, especially smaller ones. The concept (aptly described in Wikipedia), just from its name, may be scary since the word “open” can be perceived as “reveal”, “show”, “give” or even “lose”. However, for bigger companies with appropriate financial and human capital muscle it does not pose a potential misperception. In a nutshell, it really is all about being open to collaboration, licensing in ideas (or licensing out), sharing of best practice and putting it all together in your company to produce your new product or process.

SMMEs, in particular, stand to make the most out of an open innovation approach to R&D, business management, IP management and protection and also mutually beneficial sharing of ideas. Without wanting to describe the open innovation process in more detail, I would sincerely suggest that you read the latest version of the British Food Journal (2017) where 13 papers on a number of topics and issues related to innovation have been published. This special issue is thus dedicated to open food innovation and its practices. Read it, learn from it and employ it in your own business (or when you start your own business)!

ATS considers itself to be a link in the matrix of open innovation in the South African food industry. We encourage entrepreneurs and innovators to contact us to share in the open innovation process to our mutual benefit. We are constantly on the lookout for projects of this nature and look forward to assisting you in the innovation process.

Larry Dolley

British Food Journal, Volume 119, No. 11.