“Necessity is the mother of invention,” according to Greek philosopher Plato, and never have we had more need of invention and innovation than in the middle of a global pandemic. Suddenly, food and healthcare systems are under unprecedented pressure, global supply chains are hugely disrupted, and business models are pivoting to offer new services or technologies to different customers.
Agri-TechE has long been an advocate of “open innovation” (OI) and encourages the development of “porous” R&D pipelines. While still on the trajectory of bringing new core technologies, tools or services towards market, OI creates an environment that enables some organisations to absorb novel concepts or technologies from outside the company or sector, and others to push out new ideas for collaborators to pick up and develop for their markets.
Access to a greater pool of ideas
The idea being that OI is faster, cheaper, more efficient and likely to yield better results through being able to access – and contribute to – a larger pool of ideas and expertise.
Key to successful OI are collaborative attitudes, agile business models, and a flexible mindset, understanding that a new idea or technology can emerge from left field and change the game. And accepting that maybe we “don’t know what we don’t know” and being willing to seek answers and insights elsewhere.
OI took a while to get embedded in agri-tech. As we have discussed before, the pharmaceutical industry is an example of an industry more advanced in its adoption of a more open approach to its partnerships and collaborations around innovation. But agri-tech is fast catching up.
So how can we keep up the momentum in a time of lockdown and social distancing?
News reports about the COVID-19 pandemic almost daily reveal new collaborations (between companies, utility providers, government and the third sector). We’ve certainly also seen agility in business models, with growers and wholesalers selling food directly to the public to fill the current gap left by the food service sector and automotive and aerospace companies pivoting their production lines to make ventilators. Norwich Research Park is using their specialist expertise and 3D printing equipment to produce Protective Personal Equipment such as face masks.
A recent webinar hosted by the Lincoln Institute for Agricultural Technologies revealed a major appetite among companies new to agriculture to apply their expertise in robotics and engineering and potentially find fresh opportunities for furloughed staff.
Companies who have traditionally been “competitors” are now working together around a common challenge – in this case, COVID-19 – but it shows the potential is there and must be harnessed post-pandemic.
COVID-19 has also revealed that it is possible to activate much-needed flexibility and agility of working between government, academia and industry, as well as the pivoting of production lines and business models. All Mission Critical at a time of emergency, but also highly relevant for effective working in open innovation.
Also role for enablers of innovation
Finally, a word about the enablers of innovation. Technologies don’t exist in isolation. Appropriate and agile regulation, safety testing, certification, protection of intellectual property and training are all needed for new ideas to reach commercial reality. For open innovation to have an early impact these enablers all need to stay equally as fleet of foot and agile as the technology develops at pace.
We hear a lot about the lessons we are learning due to COVID-19. How we will hopefully emerge from the pandemic with a greater appreciation for our agri-food and healthcare systems, for the planet and for each other.
Let’s hope the fantastic examples of rapid, effective, multi-disciplinary open innovation are another positive legacy of COVID-19.