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Q&A: Open Innovation In The Food Industry

Thu, 09/13/2012 - 1:53pm
Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor, Food Manufacturing

NineSigma, Inc. has announced a partnership with Scientists Without Borders to find more sustainable packaging solutions for micronutrient powders (MNPs) that are used to help prevent malnutrition in developing countries. Food Manufacturing spoke with Dr. Al Malouf, Senior Program Manager, NineSigma, about the project, as well as how NineSigma helps food companies utilize open innovation.

Q: Tell us briefly about NineSigma’s packaging partnership with Scientists Without Borders.

A: The partnership with Scientists Without Borders is part of the NineSigma Gives Back Program offering pro bono services for non-profit organizations. Scientists Without Borders works with two other non-profits, DSM’s Sight and Life and The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, seeking sustainable packaging ideas for delivering essential MNPs to prevent malnutrition in developing countries.

Approximately 40-60 percent of infants in the developing world suffer from impaired mental and physical development due to vitamin and mineral deficiencies. To promote healthy infant development, non-profit organizations distribute millions of MNP packets every year. MNPs are distributed in small, single serving packets made from a composite foil that protects it from degradation in high heat and high humidity environments. Unfortunately, this makes them difficult to recycle, destroy or repurpose, resulting in massive waste and litter. Solving this waste problem would allow charitable organizations to help more infants by allowing them to distribute more MNPs. The goal of the Scientists Without Borders Ideation Challenge is to find new ideas for reducing or eliminating the ecological consequences of MNP packaging.

Q: What types of open innovation services does NineSigma provide to companies?

ANineSigma provides organizations with external innovation resources and enables them to share knowledge to accelerate the innovation cycle, whether they are in the private, public or social sectors. Our core services are based on  the NineSigma Technology SearchTM process. It is our NineSigma RFPTM(Request for Proposals) and Targeted Partner SearchTM that enable companies to reach beyond existing networks to find solutions to challenges. We also offer Enabling Services, providing training and tools for organizations to acquire competencies in open innovation and establish their own programs. Finally, our Value Added Services include an accelerated product development process and a program to develop open innovation leaders using insights gleaned from a collaborative innovation psychometric profile.

Q: What is NineSights, and how does it work?

A: Developed by NineSigma, NineSightsTM is a secure, collaborative online community that connects innovators of all sizes with resources and relationships. The NineSigma team recognized the difficulties faced by small Solution Providers looking to market their innovations to global Solution Seekers. NineSights solves this need, and now one-on-one collaboration and innovation can occur without boundaries.

Registered members receive alerts when a new Solution Seeker need matches their expertise, then they may submit a non-confidential response for free.

Solution Seekers evaluate responses and provide feedback to the Providers. For RFPs and galleries, NineSigma may facilitate the submission and evaluation process.

Then, Solution Seekers and Providers may engage in non-confidential discussions in NineSights or may move into confidential discussions offline. The Seeker and Provider will negotiate the full scope of work and other details directly.

Q: How can open innovation help food and beverage manufacturers?

A: While all major food and beverage companies hire the best and the brightest employees, it is impossible for these groups to match the collective wisdom and experience of the global innovation community. Every product hits unexpected speed bumps (or worse) in its development. Using a formal process to tap into external sources of innovation can help companies move past these hurdles by giving internal teams a number of quality solutions to choose from. It is important to reach into adjacent industries and technical disciplines when conducting a technology search in order to find new ways to address a problem that may be proven for a different application entirely. The only caveat is that the problem needs to be articulated in a way that others outside of the industry will understand the core issue and make a connection to their own solution. Food and beverage manufacturers might also benefit from conducting a technology landscaping process which helps translate the relevance of emerging technologies to their own existing products or markets and can make connections between seemingly unrelated technology areas.

Q: What should food companies consider when contemplating an open innovation program?

A: Project selection is a critical step. First, companies should allow NineSigma help them select projects with the highest probability for success. For example, projects that need a quick technical solution are a better match for the RFP process while others may be better resolved using the Targeted Partner Search process.  Early stage projects or finding new markets for existing products could greatly benefit from our Technology Landscaping service.

Assembling the right Open Innovation team is also critical. Selecting the right individuals for embracing new, unexpected ideas can make or break their success and help catapult them past the competition. 

Perhaps the most serious mistake companies make is to start an Open Innovation project without input and support from all stakeholders in the company.  OI project planning must include input from management, marketing, legal, and any group that may be affected by a new product direction.  Coaching the entire team at the beginning of the OI process is one of the most important services NineSigma performs.  Everyone should understand the process and be on the same page before launching any new project.

Lastly, the OI team must have the time and resources to run the project successfully.  Time must be allotted for them to review submitted information, and management must allocate a budget to contractually engage selected solution providers.  NineSigma introduces the respondents with our client companies and both sides engage directly to negotiate a mutually agreeable contract.

Q: What trends have you noticed regarding open innovation use in the food industry?

A: Many food companies are increasingly interested in sustainable manufacturing methods, like finding ways to reduce water and energy use and utilize more sustainable packaging materials with improved Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Typically, food companies are interested in finding ways to improve the convenience, flavor and shelf life of their products through better packaging or ingredients. Recently, they have specified the use of natural ingredients to achieve these goals.

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