Cleantech innovation: the collaboration equation
In the penultimate part of this cleantech innovation feature mini-series, Carbon Limiting Technologies (CLT) directors Beverley Gower-Jones and Mark Bornhoft explain how green innovators should be interacting with big corporations to carve out a route to market and ensure they aren't "designing in the dark".
While taking a cleantech innovation from cocooned blueprints to fully-fledged and funded products is an achievement in itself, resting on laurels is never an option for low-carbon entrepreneurs.
While many would like to be able to sit back and bask in the achievement of navigating the minefield of investment when nurturing ideas, or take time to reflect on the achievement of beginning to scale up an idea, progress demands that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) must quickly take the next step on the ladder and begin searching for collaborative platforms with reputable brands to accelerate the route to market.
As a 15-strong team of cleantech consultants – who all have experience in communicating and working with hungry SMEs – CLT has worked tirelessly to help 250 projects find a route to commercialisation, with many of them aided by large companies acting as “champions of innovation”.
“I think collaboration is a long process which is built up over many years and is largely based on pockets within large corporates that have an understanding of the benefits of innovation, and have an idea of how SMEs and entrepreneurs operate,” CLT’s chief executive Beverley Gower-Jones tells edie.
“One of the key things is to find these champions who are more inclined to want to build relationships that commercialises ideas and creates a route to market for innovations.”
Able to offer more than 90 years of cumulative experience in the clean tech innovation market, CLT has seen how innovations brought forward by SMEs can potentially lose a sense of identity and purpose due to a failure to embed an element on “understanding” with larger corporations.
While CLT’s chief operating officer Mark Bornhoft has seen many instances where companies are partnered in a way that creates a fair and risk-adverse platform for an innovation to grow, there are also occasions where a failure from SMEs to research the “integration requirements” have hindered the commercialisation process.
Bornhoft notes that a lack of engagement before the need to actually create a route to market will often lead to products that aren’t necessarily tailored for current needs, and fail to account for potential solutions to certain issues.
“SMEs need to find out what the integration requirements are and what the procurement hurdles will be so that the larger companies become more interested in the solution,” he says.
“However, one thing we feel larger companies could do more often and more effectively is issuing challenges to the SME community. It’s extremely helpful for innovators to get feedback and get challenges publicised so that they can build solutions and innovate with a particular goal in mind.”
While there is an emphasis on larger corporations to provide feedback mechanisms – which are beginning to gain traction through initiatives such as Unilever’s crowdsourcing platform – Gower-Jones also argues that the relationship between large and small businesses could be enhanced further if SMEs were more proactive while developing solutions.
“SMEs don’t engage with corporates early enough and are often developing in the dark without checking if this is what the market needs and wants,” Gower-Jones explains. “Early engagement with the business community to ensure that it has the right specifications is the flipside of the collaboration equation.
“It is up to the business to say what the challenges are, and the SME to check early to see if they could put a solution in place and what that solution should look like.”
Despite the ease at which confusion can disrupt the collaborative phase of innovation, both Bornhoft and Gower-Jones believe that by finding reputable brands with global reaches, SMEs can begin to expand their own businesses and tailor innovations for mass-market solutions.
Bornhoft noted that sectors such as IT, network and building industries have all turned to SMEs to “encourage innovation and find practical uses for new ideas”, which can assist and even develop the more traditional operational methods. But for Gower-Jones, the main benefit for SMEs looking to partner and collaborate with big business is the potential to cover costs that wouldn’t otherwise be available in order to scale-up production.
“Collaboration provides a route to market for the SME,” Gower-Jones says. “They very rarely have the reach and the brand-width to scale-up to market. But by partnering with end users or those in the value chain it provides that conduit and mechanism to accelerate products and services.
“The larger company provides the balance sheet, and can use this to enable the growth. SMEs can then use the reputation of the bigger brands to sign-up new clients because of the association with a reputable and bigger firm.”
Decisions and destiny
For CLT, one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed by SMEs when seeking collaboration, is ensuring that they remain in control of the innovation’s projection so that the product doesn’t develop to appeal for just the larger company, because it runs the risk of losing appeal to a wider audience.
“SMEs need to be in control of the innovation’s destiny,” Gower-Jones says. “If a large company, with more resources and bigger clout, begins to the pull the innovation down another direction it isn’t always in the best interest for the SME. A strong management team in the SME that is clear on strategy and direction and has an agreement with the large company upfront is key and critical.”
This sentiment is echoed by Bornhoft, who notes that SMEs are usually incapable of operating within the same timeframes as larger corporations and run the risk of losing out on funding, grant windows and potential buyers while they wait on a decision.
“The issue that needs to be carefully managed is the decision making timeframe. Corporates will have a longer timeframe than SMEs,” Bornhoft says. “The corporates that do this well are those which have effectively thought this out in advance and have been given a remit to make decisions in a smaller timeframe which benefits the SME.”
Read the other parts of this series:
The Innovation Zone at edie Live 2016
Carbon Limiting Technologies is a lead partner of the Innovation Zone competition, taking place at the edie Live exhibition next week.
As a competition specifically designed to promote and support innovation in the sustainability space, the Innovation Zone brings together innovative emerging technologies which are at pre-commercialisation but in the trial stages of development creating a vibrant networking and knowledge transfer hub at edie Live 2016.
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