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The Ultimate Guide to Open Innovation

In this guide, you will find everything you need to know about open innovation - what it is, its benefits, and best practices to apply it successfully.

Open innovation is an evolving business paradigm that embraces the exchange and collaboration of ideas beyond the traditional boundaries of an organization.

With a myriad of methods and tools to foster collaborations, open innovation empowers companies to access external ideas, technologies, and market strategies, thereby enhancing their innovative capacity and competitive edge.

This guide will delve into the fundamental concepts and mechanisms of open innovation and provide practical guidance on integrating those into your innovation process.

Definition: What is open innovation?

Open innovation is a collaborative problem-solving approach that taps into the collective intelligence of a wide range of individuals. This includes partnerships with third-party stakeholders (e.g. vendors, suppliers, customers, startups, individuals, etc.) and is contrary to traditional innovation approaches that emphasize secrecy and a silo mentality. The primary objective of open innovation is to access a wider range of ideas, expertise, and resources than would be possible with internal R&D alone, thereby increasing the likelihood of developing successful innovations and improving the overall competitiveness of the company. Idea submissions can be about specific challenges or opportunities, proposals from startups and inventors, and direct input from customers.

Open innovation has gained significant popularity as a technique due to its ability to generate ideas from diverse perspectives. Leveraging external sources of innovation in addition to internal resources helps to improve a company's innovation capabilities. When implemented effectively, open innovation cultivates strong relationships with expert and problem-solver communities. Additionally, it creates effective channels for startups to submit competitive solutions through outside-in startup scouting.

Open vs. closed innovation

Closed innovation, also known as the traditional or traditional closed model, is characterized by a primarily internal focus on R&D and a closed system for innovation. In this approach, companies rely on their internal resources, expertise, and capabilities to generate, develop, and commercialize innovations. The closed innovation model assumes that the organization has the necessary knowledge and capabilities to solve all its innovation challenges internally.

Open innovation represents a paradigm shift from closed innovation by actively seeking external ideas, knowledge, and technologies to complement internal capabilities. In the open innovation model, companies collaborate and engage with external partners, such as customers, suppliers, research institutions, startups, and even competitors, to co-create and commercialize innovations. Open innovation acknowledges the value of external sources and aims to leverage the collective intelligence and resources of a broader network.

Open innovation vs. closed innovation model

History of open innovation

The concept of open innovation traces its origins back to economist Joseph Schumpeter, who introduced the idea of "creative destruction" as a catalyst for economic growth in the early 20th century. Schumpeter argued that innovation arises from the process of entrepreneurs challenging established companies with new products, services, or business models. However, it was not until the late 1990s that the term "open innovation" was coined by Henry Chesbrough, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Chesbrough argued that companies should embrace external sources of innovation in order to complement their internal R&D efforts. Since then, the concept of open innovation has gained widespread recognition and has been adopted by companies across a range of industries as a strategy to enhance innovation and maintain competitiveness in a rapidly changing business environment.

One of the first companies that have successfully used open innovation for problem solving is Netflix. In the early 2000s, the company faced significant challenges in its DVD rental business, including high postage costs and a limited selection of titles. To overcome these challenges, Netflix launched the Netflix Prize, a competition that offered a $1 million prize to anyone who could improve the company's recommendation algorithm by at least 10%. The competition attracted thousands of participants from around the world, and after several years, a team of researchers from AT&T Labs won the prize by developing an algorithm that improved Netflix's recommendations by 10.05%. The Netflix Prize demonstrated the power of open innovation to tap into external sources of expertise and generate breakthrough innovations. 

Today, Netflix continues to use open innovation to drive its success, partnering with content creators and using data analytics to inform its programming decisions. Many other large companies have also recognized the power of open innovation and established this approach in their innovation processes, such as BMW GroupPorsche, KTM, or Bosch.

Why is open innovation important?

With open innovation companies can tap into a wider range of resources and expertise than they have internally. By collaborating with external partners such as customers, suppliers, universities, or startups, companies can leverage their collective knowledge and capabilities to create new products, services, and business models.

Open innovation also helps companies to reduce costs, increase speed to market, and manage risk by sharing resources and spreading investments across multiple partners. Moreover, open innovation can lead to greater customer satisfaction and loyalty by involving customers in the innovation process and co-creating products that better meet their needs. In today's fast-paced and rapidly changing business environment, open innovation has become an essential tool for firms seeking to stay competitive and drive innovation.

Four key benefits of open innovation

Open Innovation offers multiple advantages, ranging from a better understanding of market developments to investment or collaboration opportunities.

1. Understanding market developments

Understand the direction in which markets are developing and identify potential disruptions, new technologies, and growth areas of investors firsthand. 

2. Innovative ideas

Be inspired by startups regarding new customer experiences, products, services, or channels. Understanding why certain startups are successful and how they are serving their customers can stimulate innovation processes within organizations.

3. Investment opportunities

Invest in opportunities to achieve a financial ROI, to be prepared for various future scenarios, or to gain access to strategically relevant technologies.

4. Collaboration

Collaborate with companies to improve your business and take advantage of know-how and access to innovative technologies, business models, and competencies.

What are the challenges in open innovation?

In addition to the numerous opportunities it presents, open innovation also brings forth several distinct challenges that must be addressed to ensure its success. Common challenges organizations face in open innovation are:

1. Lack of clear goals

Clearly defined goals are essential for open innovation projects to measure success and establish trust within the organization. Without clear goals, it becomes challenging to set direction and motivate others in the company to participate. You have to define objectives (what do you want to achieve?), ownership (who is responsible for digesting promising idea submissions further?), problem statements (what problem do you want to solve?), as well as timeline and milestones.

2. Organizational culture

Organizational culture can be a significant barrier to open innovation, particularly in organizations with a traditional closed innovation approach. A culture that values secrecy, hierarchy, and internal control may discourage employees from engaging in open innovation initiatives. Moreover, organizations may face the so-called “not invented here” syndrome, where ideas or solutions from external sources are less accepted or viewed critically.

Conversely, a culture that values collaboration, openness, and experimentation can foster open innovation and create a more dynamic and adaptive organization. Therefore, creating a culture that supports open innovation requires a deliberate effort to change the organization's values, norms, and behaviors.

3. Coordination and communication

Effective coordination and communication among various internal and external stakeholders are crucial for successful open innovation. However, coordination and communication can be challenging, particularly when different stakeholders have conflicting goals, priorities, or incentives. Employing effective communication and collaboration platforms is necessary to ensure transparent and efficient communication among all parties involved. Additionally, clear and well-defined roles and responsibilities are essential to ensure that all stakeholders understand their contributions and obligations.

4. Risks and uncertainties

Open innovation is inherently risky, as it involves sharing knowledge and resources with external partners, potentially exposing the organization to intellectual property theft, reputational damage, or other risks. Additionally, external factors such as technological disruption, regulatory changes, or market volatility can create significant uncertainty and risk. Managing these risks requires a robust open innovation strategy that balances short-term and long-term goals, aligns with the organization's mission and values, and anticipates potential risks and uncertainties. It also requires a willingness to experiment, learn from failures, and pivot when necessary.

5. Evaluation of submissions and identification of relevant ideas

Externally submitted ideas run the risk of being of poor quality or not matching the defined goals. To filter out such submissions in the first step, regular quality checks must be made using clearly defined criteria, such as language, precision, and richness of explanations. This task should be performed by a dedicated team or a responsible person to facilitate the subsequent selection process. While these are primarily internal teams or individuals, some organizations assign the task of evaluating ideas to a third-party research firm to eliminate bias in the process. Moreover, you have to define clear evaluation criteria to ensure that the most relevant ideas are chosen for further development or partnerships.

6. Intellectual property rights

Intellectual property rights (IPR) are a critical concern in open innovation, as they determine ownership and control over the intellectual property resulting from collaborative efforts. Collaborating with external partners, including suppliers, customers, and competitors, can create complex IPR issues that must be carefully managed. Organizations must ensure that IPR ownership and usage rights are clearly defined and agreed upon by all parties involved in the collaboration.

What are the four types of open innovation?

Open innovation can take many forms, and companies need to choose the right type of open innovation that suits their business needs and objectives. The following are four types of open innovation that companies can adopt:

1. Outside-in open innovation

Outside-in open innovation refers to the practice of sourcing ideas, technologies, and knowledge from external sources. This can include customers, suppliers, universities, research institutes, and other organizations. The goal of outside-in open innovation is to bring new perspectives and ideas into the company and leverage the expertise and resources of external partners to solve business challenges.

2. Inside-out open innovation

Inside-out open innovation focuses on commercializing internal ideas and technologies by licensing, selling, or spinning them off to external partners. This approach can help companies to monetize their intellectual property and generate new revenue streams. Inside-out open innovation can also help companies to focus on their core competencies while leveraging external partners' expertise to bring new products and services to market.

3. Coupled open innovation

Coupled open innovation involves combining internal and external ideas and technologies to create new products, services, or business models. This approach can help companies to create disruptive innovations that combine the best of both worlds – internal and external expertise. Coupled open innovation can also help companies to overcome internal resistance to change and accelerate their innovation process.

4. Collaborative open innovation

Collaborative open innovation entails partnering with external parties, such as competitors, startups, and other organizations, to jointly develop and commercialize ideas, technologies, and knowledge. Collaborative open innovation can help companies to access new markets, share risks and costs, and combine complementary capabilities. Collaborative open innovation can also help companies to create new business models and disrupt existing industries.

What is the open innovation process?

The open innovation process is a systematic approach that organizations follow to engage in open innovation activities effectively. It involves identifying, acquiring, integrating, and commercializing external ideas, technologies, and knowledge. We define the open innovation process with seven key steps:

1. Define strategic objectives

Identify innovation goals, areas of focus, and the types of external partners to collaborate with.

Ask yourself:

  • What do you want to achieve? Do you want to identify disruptive solutions for specific search fields or new ideas to improve existing offerings?
  • Who are key stakeholders in the process?
  • Is the initiative always-on (constantly offering externals the opportunity to submit proposals) or time-bound (your campaign has an end date by which you would like to receive as many proposals as possible)?

By clearly defining strategic objectives, organizations can align their open innovation efforts with their overall business strategy.

2. Identify external collaboration partners

Once the strategic objectives are set, the next step is to identify potential external partners you want to target. This involves choosing the right channels to connect with potential partners, such as own or external open innovation platforms, industry networks, conferences, or online communities.

3. Define the framework for collaboration

As a next step, you have to define the structure and framework for collaboration, including intellectual property rights, contractual agreements, and communication channels. Part of this is considering what information you need to provide to point idea submitters in the right direction and what incentives you want to offer.

Clear and effective collaboration mechanisms are crucial for building trust, managing expectations, and ensuring a smooth flow of ideas, knowledge, and technologies between the partners.

4. Engage in knowledge exchange

Knowledge exchange is a fundamental aspect of the open innovation process. It involves sharing and exchanging ideas, insights, and expertise between the company and its external partners. This can take various forms, such as joint research projects, technology transfer, co-development, and co-creation initiatives. Effective knowledge exchange requires open communication, mutual learning, and a willingness to share resources and information.

5. Evaluate and select ideas/ solution proposals

A vital step in the open innovation process is to evaluate and select the most promising ideas, solutions, and technologies for further development. This step involves assessing the potential value, feasibility, and alignment with strategic objectives. Evaluation criteria may include market potential, Business Relevance, Strategic Fit, Internal Capabilities, Time to Market, or Cost of Implementation. Companies can use a combination of internal assessments and external expert opinions to make informed decisions.

6. Integrate and develop

Once the most promising proposals are selected, the next step is to integrate them into the organization's existing innovation processes and develop them further. This may involve combining internal and external resources, conducting further R&D, prototyping, and testing. The integration and development phase requires effective project management, coordination, and collaboration between the company and its external partners.

7. Commercialize and implement

The final step in the open innovation process is the commercialization and implementation of the developed ideas or technologies. This involves bringing the innovation to market, launching new products or services, and creating value for customers. Companies need to carefully plan the commercialization strategy, including marketing, distribution, and intellectual property protection, to maximize the return on investment and capture the value created through open innovation.

7 key steps in the open innovation process

Open innovation stakeholders and their roles

Open innovation is a collaborative approach that involves engaging with external stakeholders to drive innovation and create value. Stakeholders play a crucial role in the open innovation process, contributing their expertise, resources, and knowledge to co-create innovative solutions. Let’s explore the different stakeholders involved in open innovation and their specific roles and contributions.

1. Customers

Customers’ needs, preferences, and insights provide valuable input for identifying innovation opportunities and developing customer-centric solutions. In the context of open innovation, customers can contribute in several ways:

  • Idea generation: Customers provide innovative ideas, suggestions, and feedback on existing products or services, leading to improvements or new product concepts.
  • Co-creation: Through co-creation initiatives, customers collaborate with companies to design and develop customized solutions that meet their specific needs and preferences.
  • Feedback and validation: Customers participate in product testing, provide feedback on prototypes, and validate new concepts, helping to refine and improve innovations.

2. Suppliers

Suppliers contribute to open innovation in the following ways:

  • Technology and knowledge transfer: Suppliers share their technological advancements, industry insights, and specialized knowledge, enabling companies to access new ideas and technologies.
  • Co-development: Through collaborative partnerships, suppliers work together with companies to develop new products, processes, or materials, combining their respective expertise.
  • Supply chain innovation: Suppliers offer innovative solutions within the supply chain, such as improved logistics, sustainable practices, or cost-saving initiatives, benefiting the entire ecosystem.

3. Universities and research institutes

Their contributions of academic institutions and research institutes in open innovation include:

  • Research collaboration: Companies collaborate with universities and research institutes to jointly conduct research projects, exploring new technologies, and solving complex challenges.
  • Technology licensing: Academic institutions often hold intellectual property rights resulting from their research activities. Licensing agreements allow companies to access and utilize these technologies for commercial purposes.
  • Talent exchange: Collaborations with universities facilitate the exchange of talent, such as internships, joint appointments, or academic-industry partnerships, fostering knowledge exchange and skill development.

4. Startups

Startups bring agility, disruptive ideas, and novel business models to the open innovation landscape. Their involvement includes:

  • Technology and innovation scouting: Established companies partner with startups to identify emerging technologies and innovative business concepts, leveraging the startup ecosystem's dynamism and creativity.
  • Incubation and acceleration programs: Companies provide support to startups through incubation or acceleration programs, offering resources, mentorship, and funding to nurture their growth and innovation potential.
  • Co-creation and collaboration: Startups collaborate with established companies to co-create and develop new products, services, or solutions, leveraging their innovative capabilities and market insights.

5. Competitors

Although it may seem counterintuitive, competitors can also play a role in open innovation. Collaborating with competitors can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes, such as:

  • Precompetitive collaboration: Competitors collaborate on precompetitive research and development projects, pooling resources and expertise to solve industry-wide challenges or explore new technologies.
  • Standards development: Companies collaborate with competitors and industry associations to develop industry standards, ensuring interoperability and promoting innovation across the ecosystem.
  • Licensing and cross-licensing: Competitors enter into licensing agreements, exchanging intellectual property rights and technologies to access new markets or enhance product offerings.

While caution must be exercised to protect proprietary information and maintain a fair competitive environment, strategic collaborations with competitors can unlock new opportunities and drive industry-wide innovation.

How to implement an open innovation strategy?

At ITONICS, we consider open innovation an integral part of the end-to-end innovation framework that can be conducted at different stages of the process. From scanning the environment for new potential partnerships (Where to Play) over to the solution search for concrete opportunities to find ways of ‘How to Win’.

Where to use open innovation in the innovation process


Depending on the stage of your innovation process, you have different possibilities to approach open innovation:

  1. Leverage inside-out open innovation by identifying market developments and customer needs with broad scouting activities. (Where to play)
  2. Identify potential partners and solution providers for defined innovation opportunities (inside-out open innovation) with focused scouting activities. (How to win)
  3. Use outside-in open innovation to scout broadly for innovative ideas through an open submission portal, also known as crowdsourcing. (Where to play)
  4. Apply the outside-in approach to receive solution proposals for a defined search field, e.g. from startups. (How to win)

Strategies to implement open innovation in the innovation process

What are examples of open innovation best practices?

Open innovation has gained widespread recognition as a powerful approach to driving innovation and achieving business success. In recent years, we have observed a growing interest in open innovation strategies among our customers and community.

In the following section, we will present best practice examples of organizations that have successfully leveraged external sources of knowledge, expertise, and resources to enhance their innovation capabilities. 

Co-creation with partners at Bosch

Bosch, one of the largest German engineering and technology companies, has launched the Bosch Open Innovation Partnerships platform. This platform allows them to easily access and coordinate idea submissions for defined search fields and co-create with startups, universities, and other experts. It serves as a gateway for Bosch to gain outside-in perspectives.

The platform also facilitates better-informed decision-making through market insights, coming from different integrated external data sources. Promising candidates, ideas, and partners are funneled through a defined process, ultimately leading to the conversion of these opportunities into “innovation projects”.

Identifying partnerships at KTM

Another example is KTM, the Austrian motorcycle, bicycle, and sports car manufacturer. With their Become a Partner Gateway, the PIERER Mobility Group provides a platform for startups and partners to submit their solutions and ideas and to initiate collaborations.

Driving sustainability in the supply chain with collaborations at Körber Supply Chain

In our Innovation Rockstars Podcast, Dr. Kerstin Höfle, Vice President R&D and Product Management at Körber Supply Chain, shared insights on how they address the hot topic of sustainability in the supply chain. Here, she highlighted that collaborations with partners and suppliers are the way forward to successfully drive innovation and sustainability. Because they cannot have all the expertise and capabilities in-house, they scan the market for new players, identify the most promising ones, and partner up. 

Tools and resources for open innovation

To establish open innovation as an integral part of the business strategy, you will need the buy-in and support of stakeholders. To create a shared understanding of how open innovation can benefit your innovation efforts from start to finish, you should consider the following aspects:

  1. Define what open innovation means for your organization. What are your goals? What processes will you use? Who will be involved?
  2. Explain the objectives of performing open innovation and how this would help meet business goals. Are you attempting to enter new markets, enhance service or product portfolios, drive outside-in startup scouting, reduce the risk and cost of existing innovation, or initiate a diversity of perspectives and ideas?
  3. Detail how you will garner engagement. How will you reach external partners simply and securely? How will you communicate and incentivize engagement?
  4. Share examples of successful open innovation projects. Showcase a few of these examples to demonstrate what's possible with open innovation.
  5. Outline a step-by-step plan for implementing open innovation. How will you solicit ideas from employees, customers, partners, and other stakeholders? How will you evaluate ideas and manage the process? Will your open innovation campaigns be time-bound or always-on? How will your team manage rejected proposals?

In addition to your implementation plan, it will be crucial to have your efforts supported by robust phase-gate management capabilities.

Manage open innovation initiatives with ITONICS

ITONICS supports innovation leaders around the globe in their open innovation endeavors. With ITONICS Open Innovation, our software offers several features to orchestrate open innovation:

External Gateway

The External Gateway enables you to leverage crowd knowledge and expertise from external parties. It’s an external application form that is directly linked to the ITONICS platform. Information that is entered by externals via the application form will be transmitted to the platform, where it can be edited, enriched, and processed for further usage. 

The form can be integrated into other web pages as desired, such as your company homepage. The design of the External Gateway can be fully customized using HTML, CSS, and inline JavaScript to match your corporate design.

Always-on or time-bound open innovation initiatives

You have the flexibility to choose between always-on or time-bound open innovation campaigns based on your specific needs and objectives.

Simple submission evaluation

Once you receive submissions, evaluating and managing them becomes effortless. Utilize the configurable Rating feature to assess the submissions. You can also request specific experts to rate particular submissions, ensuring a comprehensive evaluation process.

Integrated innovation

Seamlessly integrate open innovation into your end-to-end innovation process with the ITONICS Innovation OS:

Integrate open innovation into the end-to-end innovation process

  • Scan, scout, and monitor trends, technologies, startups, etc. and let the ITONICS Radar help you determine which drivers of change to act on. With ITONICS Radar you get a 360° view of possibilities for growth based on collective ratings. Analyze information with clear visualizations to inform open innovation campaigns. Shape a shared vision of the future, define "Where to Play", and build the foundations for knowing "How to Win". Incorporate these insights to create open innovation campaigns that answer strategic questions. 
  • Collect idea submissions internally from your intrapreneurs around the globe as well as external submitters. A reliable phase-gate process allows you to move idea submissions through phases and select the best ones for further development. Get experts to help you rate ideas to ensure that you back the winners.
  • Enable outside-in startup scouting by creating effective channels for startups to contribute towards your next-generation products, services, and business models. Gather submissions on one digital platform and establish your startup ecosystem fast and simply. With the ITONICS Crunchbase and Tracxn integrations, you can create and enrich startup profiles instantly. Actively manage your startup portfolio and identify opportunities faster.
  • Once you have results from open innovation, move the best ideas to prioritization phases using ITONICS Portfolio. Use customizable ITONICS Matrix visualizations to assess ideas and projects and prioritize the most relevant initiatives and activities. Organize and structure project information to provide quick views on objectives, risks, workflows, budgets, and KPIs.
  • After confirming specific projects, use ITONICS Roadmap to steer projects and move an idea to implementation. Ensure that multiple stakeholders act together, connect projects to trends, technologies, startups, risks, and more, and drive the innovation portfolios toward sustainable growth.

ITONICS Open Innovation

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Final recommendations on open innovation

Open innovation is not merely a buzzword; it is a vital approach that organizations must embrace to thrive in today's dynamic and competitive landscape. In conclusion, we summarize the most important key takeaways from this guide:

  • By adopting open innovation practices, organizations can tap into a wider range of ideas, expertise, and resources, accelerating the pace of innovation and driving sustainable growth. 

  • Open innovation facilitates collaboration, fosters creativity, and enables organizations to adapt and respond to market changes effectively.

  • Embracing open innovation requires a mindset shift, a willingness to collaborate, and a commitment to creating an innovation-friendly environment. 

  • By leveraging external knowledge, forming strategic partnerships, and embracing a culture of openness and experimentation, organizations can position themselves at the forefront of innovation and achieve long-term success.

  • Keep in mind that open innovation is not a one-time endeavor; it is an ongoing process that requires continuous learning, adaptation, and improvement. As technology advances and new opportunities emerge, organizations must remain agile and open to new possibilities. 

Want to learn more about the features and functionalities of the ITONICS Innovation OS to unlock open innovation in your organization? 



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