In an earlier post I discussed how DARPA has been open innovating since before we were using the term. I left out one point that former Director Tether made in his statement to the House committee explaining the attributes that have led to DARPA’s success (his statement is in italics):
- Orientation to revolutionary breakthroughs in a connected approach: DARPA historically has focused not on incremental but radical innovation. It emphasizes high-risk investment, moves from fundamental technological advances to prototyping, and then hands off the system development and production to the military services or the commercial sector.
DARPA studies the seemingly impossible to demonstrate what’s technically possible. Military leaders, and sometimes commercial interests as was the case with GPS, can then adopt directed initiatives to meet specific challenges with the emerging technology.
DARPA is the R in research & development, but the DARPA approach tightly couples R&D to avoid a “valley of death” between basic research and applied development. This transition from R to D is critical to bringing new technologies to market and to developing an effective open innovation strategy. The same is true also for the transition from development to commercialization.
Building the right business model around a technology is necessary to unlock its value, and researchers frequently cannot be bothered to consider something so far downstream when making their research choices. In the early stages of research, commercial potential is hard to estimate, if it is even evident at that point.
Still, research must, at some point, help solve real problems or risk running out of funding – either when no one else is willing to make a grant or the company goes out of business. Focus too much on a specific problem, and hamstring your researchers. Give them no direction, and embark on an endless journey with no compass or destination.
What makes open innovation so compelling is amortizing the risk that the research will actual yield a financial return over a much larger set of addressable problems. Researches are free to follow their research where it may lead with the comfort of knowing an unexpected turn could open the horizons to all sort of unconsidered applications. A clear line of sight on a specific application does not need to be established at the outset.
As research progresses, the hand off to development and commercialization must be carefully managed. Open innovation can help in this regard as well. The prospect of competition for the chance to bring a new product or service to market can push business units to be more aggressive about acquiring and investing in emergent technologies – from their own research department or even someone else’s.
In this regard, the key to a successful open innovation strategy is awell formed framework for assessing the fit of a technology within your organization by the time it is ready to shift from research to development. And that is something I would like to spend a lot more time exploring in future posts . . .