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Innovation Needs More Collaboration

Posted on June 16th, 2017 by in Chemical R&D

Lightbulb innovation

Collaborative innovation in the chemical sector has a long history and can bring many benefits, but it creates tension over intellectual property and openness – companies need to address these issues going forward

There is a long history of collaborative innovation in the chemical industry. Just think of the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia, developed in 1909-10 by Fritz Haber at the University of Karlsruhe and Carl Bosch of BASF.

But even today, a hundred and more years on, there are huge obstacles in the path of chemical companies collaborating in the area of innovation, with other chemical players, with customers and with academia.

There are issues around intellectual property (IP) ownership and just what to share with the collaborating partner, points out Otto Schulz, global lead partner chemicals at A. T. Kearney. “Fear of losing IP really is an obstacle and can cost companies dearly if it means forgoing opportunities for value generation.”

To break this reluctance down is a big task for prospective collaborative partners.  People today, says Schulz, are looking for leadership guidance. “The chemical industry needs to develop processes in this area, especially as innovation today is very much more focused on the “d” of development, rather than the “r” of research.”

Chemical innovation these days tends to be less focused on new molecule and process development, and more focused on new applications development for existing chemicals, and offering new solutions to particular problems based around formulations and service packages.

To do this effectively, close contact and often collaboration with customers is necessary to identify problems and tailor the innovation process to create the required solution. Often, progress towards the solution can be accelerated by further collaboration with academia, using particular expertise in centres of excellence.

WEF collaborative initiative
As part of an international effort to stimulate collaborative innovation in the chemical sector, A. T. Kearney is a partner in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Collaborative Innovation Project, established as part of WEF’s Chemistry and Advanced Materials programme.

The Collaborative Innovation Project is a collection of initiatives intended to foster cross-sectorial collaboration and challenge the established boundaries for collaborative discovery. Throughout the project, business leaders, academic experts and other key stakeholders will provide best practices, case studies and primary research to inform and guide the project.

The 2016-2017 objective for the project is to support the creation of a roadmap for the chemistry and advanced materials industry to develop and deploy collaborative responses and/or new innovation models to selected targets in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

An initial report is expected to be revealed this June at the Amman meeting of WEF. As Schulz notes, the chemical industry can play an important role in many of the SDGs, which cover clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, zero hunger and climate action.

But pursuing innovation in support of the SDGs goals will require a different way of thinking. As the problems are mainly in the developing world, there is different stakeholder involvement and collaborative partnerships will be harder to identify, notes Schulz. In many cases, the innovation will have to be lower technology and applicable in the poorer economies.

The challenge will be, he adds, to balance upstream innovation and collaborative efforts in the North between the academia and hi tech start-ups, for instance, and downstream innovation in the South, in collaboration with a variety of partners there. Projects might include, for example, cheap but effective water filters, micronutrients to address malnourishment, and effective mosquito nets.

But, it will be difficult, he warns, “to service and deliver downstream innovation in a dispersed and cumbersome environment” like the developing world.

Computing power
There is another area where collaboration in innovation between chemical companies and academia and hi-tech start-ups is becoming more important, says Schulz. And that is in the growing field of computer modelling used in molecular design and modelling of chemical interactions.

Chemical producers can see the tremendous advantages of using computers and calculational techniques to investigate materials and their interactions, but do not possess the researchers capable of this. The necessary people, he says, come from a different background, often in start-ups that are highly innovative and have their own goals. Or they are in university departments, where collaboration is not high on their agenda.

But again, collaboration here will not be straightforward. “The interaction process can be very cumbersome”, says Schulz. “Bringing computer scientists and chemists together is not easy.”

Constant struggle
Getting the best out of innovation and collaboration is a constant struggle, adds Schulz. “It requires a wide understanding of what’s going on. On the whole, industry understands the challenges of R&D, but the basic struggle is lack of execution.”

He argues that the industry needs to adapt itself to address the split between the desire to engage in collaborative innovation and the fear of being open about the findings and the management of IP.

“The challenge is for companies to respond by making significant change efforts in this area,” he concludes. “A dedicated focus can bring a different understanding of the innovation process.”

John Baker is an editor at ICIS, and manages the ICIS Innovation Awards, designed to recognise and reward the best in chemicals innovation each year. For more details, go to, and check out a video on how to apply.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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