Putting your ideas on the line

Since 2007, Roland Harwood has been running Nesta Connect, a programme for collaborative innovation. I’ve come to Nesta to meet Roland because so many projects I’ve covered in the book, including Steve Moore’s 2gether and RSA Networks, have received funding through this initiative.

A central aspect of Nesta Connect’s research is the question of how big companies can organize themselves effectively in today’s “fluid” economic, technological and social environments.

Roland’s team helps large multinationals such as Procter & Gamble, Oracle and Virgin connect with the small innovative companies – and individuals – that can help them.

The question of who owns what intellectually is key in these relationships. Small players are fearful of being taken advantage of, while larger businesses are increasingly sensitive to accusations of greed or exploitation.

“With P&G we looked at IP in a project called “The Future of Laundry”. That may sound kind of trivial but domestic laundry is a massively important market… P&G set the bar very high – they only wanted to look at [collaborative] products with potential revenues of $1m or more per annum.”

It’s common for large businesses to have a policy of not signing non-disclosure agreements.

“You need to have a patent in place if you want to talk to [these companies],” explains Roland. “This is because they’ve had situations in the past where they’ve developed something similar in house [to that which a potential collaborator has proposed] and been taken to court. But securing a patent is expensive and can take years so potential partners are often excluded.”

P&G has a long history of collaboration but it wasn’t until the company’s share price collapse in 2000 that “Connect and Develop”, a programme specifically aimed at outside collaborators, was created. While the company’s strategy is to increase the percentage of products which involve an external collaborator, the need for patents was creating a barrier.

Nesta Connect stepped in and acted as a kind of “trust broker” between P&G and its potential collaborators.

“We were trying to open up the dialogue between P&G and small innovative companies. We formed what was essentially an “air lock” between Nesta, P&G and the small companies.

“The big learning from that whole project was that if you want large and small companies to communicate you need to build trust, and involving a neutral third party can be a good way of doing that.”

All in all, Roland’s experience of working with multinationals has been hugely positive: “I’m surprised at how receptive large companies [are] to trying this stuff.”