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The benefits of open innovation

Many people don’t know what open innovation means, but ultimately, it’s just a way of working together to develop competitive advantage, says Alan Welby, director of innovation for the North East LEP.

While businesses frequently rely on their internal teams and knowledge to develop a competitive edge, open innovation can provide an exciting and beneficial alternative.

Open innovation can take lots of different forms and is often described in a variety of ways. For example, people might use the terms challenge activities or sprints but at its core, the premise is very simple. It’s a means of sharing a work context or problem within a safe wider environment so that partners, and sometimes even competitors, can help find a way forward.

It’s the idea behind Challenge North East, a new open innovation programme that we are running here at the LEP.

We are offering SMEs up to £5k grant funding between January and March 2021 to develop solutions to specific challenges caused by COVID-19, with the possibility of being in the running to win a grant of up to £40k to scale the most impactful solution in each area.

The first call in the programme is called ‘Together again: Delivering safe and engaging in-person events’ and it seeks answers to how people might be able to gather safely again indoors and outdoors, while achieving an engaging experience for those watching at home.

The second Challenge North East call is known as ‘Safe Again: Adapting home-based services’. Those who have ideas for new ways of working for those who deliver and rely on in-home services will be eligible for funding and development support.

We’re excited and hopeful about what the regional business community will come up with. The North East is a place that traditionally likes to solve problems and is entrepreneurial by its very nature.

A great example of this is the Northumbrian Water Innovation Festival where, to use their own description, they “gather some of the greatest and most innovative minds from the worlds of business, science, tech, engineering, utilities and customer services and get them to tackle real world problems together in a series of sprints.”

To achieve this, they create a trusted environment in which issues can be discussed and collaborative solutions found. The goal is for this type of approach to become mainstream.

Through Challenge North East we want to show that we are better at open innovation than elsewhere in the UK and become a hotspot for this kind of thinking and action. That needs us to create a culture in which looking outwardly to innovate is the norm, so that our organisations flourish and other businesses want to invest here.