How to look for innovation

5 technologies and ideas that support open innovation and can help your growing business compete with well-resourced large corporates

Everyone recognises the need for businesses of all sizes and in all sectors to innovate in order to prosper, especially if you are a technology company.

But if you are a small company without the luxury of the resources of multinationals or large corporates, how do you do this effectively and where do you start?

“With more and more web-based tools available, small technology companies as well as large, can now be much more effective at identifying technologies and ideas that can help their businesses be more innovative. All for an investment of an hour or two online,” says Mark Thompson, formerly head of market development at the University of Manchester Intellectual Property (UMIP).

Open innovation

Over the last 10 years, open innovation has gained wide acceptance. Ideas and technologies are flowing in and out of major innovators, who have reduced their reliance on internal R&D and are switching resources to a dedicated search for external innovation through activities such as patent mapping, technology scouting, corporate venturing or publicly promoting their “interest” areas. Philips for example, employs 250 people just in its in-licensing, IP management and out-licensing department alone.

“We now have a situation where open innovation, along with the increased recognition of IP protection and improved access to universities, creates a stimulating, dynamic and complex scene,” says Thompson, who was named by Intellectual Asset Management magazine in 2009 as one of the world’s top 250 IP strategists and who is now running his consultancy on open innovation in low carbon.

Despite the attractions, even experienced and well-resourced large corporates frequently complain that the technology world is a frustrating jungle. In a closed model of innovation, you only have to look internally for innovations. But now if you are seeking a solution, it could come from potentially any organisation anywhere, including a choice of 9,000 universities worldwide.

The smaller tech venture

As a smaller technology or manufacturing venture, where do you start looking for innovation? Do you have time to turn yourself into an expert on web resources?

Building a website for your business idea is easier than you might think. Our online tool ranks the top website builders that offer free trials.

Can you work out how to use online patent databases?

However, there are now a wide variety of other online tools and networks for small and growing businesses to use allowing you to do the following.

1. Find a solution for a specific technical problem.
2. Find innovative technologies that could be translated into a product.
3. Keep track of innovation activities in specific sectors.
4. Monitor competitors.

These resources are described one by one below, forming a box of complementary tools. Not all are completely free, but even on the commercial ones, you can gain some value at no cost.

1.       Google or Yahoo alerts

It is surprising how many people have not heard of these. In essence, these allow anyone to set up an email alert notifying them when something new has come.

You can set up as many different alerts as you wish. So, if you are in the water quality sector, you could have one alert set up for identifying new web content on “innovative water treatment technology” and perhaps another for “Danfoss new product”.

2.       Technology portals

Emerging over the last six or seven years, these sites are online databases which are either completely free or have useful free functionality. They either list new licensable technologies, or technologies/innovations being sought, or both. The main portals are compared in the following tables.

Portals that list just technologies available Technologies from US universities only. Information in reasonable lay language although quite wordy. No fees or charges for contacting advertisers. Sliding scale of fees to list technology. US bias, data almost entirely in patent text format so not easy reading, data can be browsed freely but registration is required before you can access the site and payment required to see full information and to allow users to contact advertisers. Fees to list technology. Data from Canadian universities only. Data is in a digestible lay language format. No fees of any kind. Users can contact advertisers freely. Email alerts facility. Data format not very structured and visually not easy on the eye for browsing. Data tends to be in patent language. Free to browse part of data but registration necessary to view full text. Advertisers can only be contacted through Knowledge Express. Expensive to advertise. Scottish Universities only. Good data format. Users can contact advertisers directly. No fees.

Portals that just list technology needs Technology needs are usually large multinational. Data usually in a good concise data format. Free to browse. Contact advertisers through Innocentive only. Expensive to advertise on. Email alerts. Technology needs are usually from large multinationals. Usually good concise data format. Free to browse. Contact advertisers through Ninesigma only. Expensive to advertise on. Email alerts facility.

Portals that list both technologies available and technology needs US bias. Registered users can add their data directly. Free to browse. Data heavy text format. 25% deal fee to anyone advertising a technology request or technology offer. Advertisers can only be contacted indirectly through Tynax. Data format quite heavyweight. Email alerts facility. Centred around US but also covers UK, Japan to a degree. Good lay language data format. Email alerts facility. (IP Net) International profile. Very concise data format and very easy to browse. Mainly university IP. No fees. Users directly upload their own technology offers or needs data. Users can contact advertisers directly.Email alerts facility.

The last of these, IP Net, is the newest, being the first portal of this sort to allow anyone, anywhere to advertise a technology offering or an innovation need for free. This and the ability for users to register online and add and control their content directly, make it extremely easy for small and medium sized businesses in particular to use.

Where sites allow users to register for email alerts or updates for new technologies, keyword filters can usually be set. A number also have an RSS feed, which works very well, particularly as the volume of new traffic flowing out of these systems is relatively modest.

3.       Half Bakery is a free open website for people to directly post their “half baked” ideas for product or technology innovations for the good of society. It can be quite creative and unusual, although all the ideas (or part ideas) are all public domain. If you find an idea, you cannot be sure that someone else is not using it as well.

4.       The Knowledge Vine is a free email-based networking system consisting of 1,000 or so technology professionals, from a wide variety of organisations including 200 universities internationally. It allows users to post a “single sentence question” to others by email, so it is ideal for locating technologies for specific purposes, e.g. “Does anyone know of a technology that . . .?” Users reply just to the person asking the question if they know someone that can help.

 5.       Knowledge Transfer Networks – the KTNs are technology specific networks for the UK, run by the Technology Strategy Board. There are some 19 different ones covering subject areas from fuel cells through to creative industries. They are all free to join, and run events, newsletters etc. They give a very good means of keeping up to speed with trends, issues and opportunities in specific sectors and have a very good entrepreneurial and communal feel. You can join online for free.

Working with universities, 2nd edition, published by Crimson publishing, is available to buy now.


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