Taking the time to craft a good problem statement and prioritising good communication can help co-innovation between large corporations and start-ups succeed.
To stay competitive, many companies—even established ones—are actively seeking to bring new ideas into their purview. Roche Diagnostics, for instance, spent over US$10 billion on research and development in 2018 alone, said Wendy Bao, executive director of Roche Diagnostics.
Bao was speaking at the inaugural ‘Experience the Power of Innovation and Collaboration’ (EPIC), an innovation festival held on 16 August 2019 to mark the fifth anniversary of the Action Community for Entrepreneurship (ACE). The event saw the launch of ACE’s Innovation Enablers Network (IEN), a platform for ecosystem partners from large corporations to start-ups to connect and collaborate.
While many of the research endeavours at Roche are focused on areas within their core competencies, others—like data analytics or digital applications for healthcare—lie outside that scope. In such cases, Bao said, Roche looks outwards for suitable co-innovation partners.
What’s your problem (statement)?
For companies like Roche, finding the right collaborator is key. One of the main problems corporations face when looking for an innovative solution is access to technology and a pool of potential collaborators, said Dr Sze Tiam Lin, senior director of IPI, a founding member of the IEN. “IPI helps by consolidating different types of technology into a one-stop shop, be it for public or private, local or overseas companies,” he said.
Once a connection has been made, the next step is for potential collaborators to get on the same page. However, understanding exactly what a corporate organisation is looking for can be difficult for start-ups, which may lack domain knowledge. Edmund Lim, director of KPMG Digital Village—also part of the IEN—said that defining a clear problem statement is crucial for good collaborations and for creating effective solutions. “Rather than just accepting a problem statement at face value, we talk to various stakeholders and help shape the problem statement with them,” Lim said.
While the problem at hand might seem urgent and companies might be tempted to jump right in to get their hands dirty, taking the time to properly understand the issue is worth the investment, said Adam Lyle, executive chairman of Padang & Co. “I encourage people to be patient because a problem well-defined is a problem half-solved,” Lyle said.
If crafting a clear problem statement solves half the problem, perhaps good communication between parties addresses the other half, Lyle continued. Co-innovation partners should align their business objectives early on, making clear the expectations that they have. “At the end of the day, it’s the way people communicate,” Lyle said. “Good communication and empathy can go a long way.”
For instance, large corporations may have lengthy payment processes, which start-ups with less cash flow may not be used to. By communicating these expectations early on, processes can be altered to fit the situation and avoid misunderstandings that can damage the relationship, said Lyle.
The need for good communication does not only apply to external collaborators—internal parties have a stake in it as well. For companies to fully embrace innovation, they should nurture ‘internal’ innovators by encouraging employees—who understand what the company needs best—to grow their ideas. These individuals are poised to drive the co-innovation process as they form the link between internal partners, innovation enablers and external collaborators. For example, Roche Diagnostics has a dedicated digital health solutions team that manages the co-innovation process by partnering with enablers to scout for innovative solutions, shared Bao.
While platforms like the IEN are essential to the co-innovation ecosystem, it is important to remember that changing culture takes time, said Sze. “People need to have a realistic view that co-innovation is a journey, not a quick fix for innovation,” he said. “As innovation enablers, we help to look for innovation partners to build up, maintain and cultivate a network that can be switched on when different solutions are required.”
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