Open innovation starts with... inspiration
Not a day goes by that does not bring us new sources of inspiration – things we read, things we see around us and especially the thoughts and experiences that other people share with us. This inspiration leads to fresh ideas, which we often get at moments when we are not focused on our work. And these new ideas in turn are the seeds for new innovations. In short, innovation begins with inspiration. This is especially true in the case of open innovation, the theme of our annual report 2008, in which several parties collaborate and inspire each other.
Dutch Polymer Institute
The Dutch Polymer Institute (DPI), founded more than a decade ago, aims to promote high-calibre research in the field of polymers so that more students graduate in polymer subjects and more ideas for polymer processes and polymer products come to fruition. We have already partly achieved these goals, but at the same time we are well aware of the new challenges ahead of us. For example, as a result of the growing need for alternative feedstocks, the interest in (bio)polymers will only grow in the years to come.
Last year we once again proved that it is possible to conduct high-calibre fundamental research based on needs expressed by industry. We also succeeded in breaking down the barriers between the research groups of industrial companies, universities and institutes and initiating collaboration between these groups. But high-quality research alone is not enough. We want this research to have an impact, to lead to new innovative processes and products in both large and small companies. Open innovation can accelerate this process, and the DPI Value Centre can play a key role in this.
Over the last decade DPI has consistently worked towards open innovation. During the first few years, the process of converting innovations in the ‘proof of principle’ stage to new processes and products mainly took place within large companies. DPI played only a modest role in this process and was primarily responsible for coordinating the precompetitive scientific research. The foundation of DPI Value Centre in 2007 was a step forward towards open innovation.
Using knowledge made available by universities or large companies, new businesses can start up or existing SMEs can expand their activities. Small, medium-sized and large companies mutually benefit from this collaboration; in this sense they might be said to form a kind of eco-system. DPI Value Centre plays an important role in this system in that it brings the various parties into contact with one another and provides practical advice. We have deliberately opted for an organizational division between DPI and DPI Value Centre, because fundamental research and generating business options have different time horizons and require different people. We are gradually seeing more synergy building up between large and small companies as a result of the activities of DPI Value Centre. The essence of the whole set-up is that DPI coordinates excellent research and DPI Value Centre complements this with initiatives to ensure that this research will have an impact on society. In 2008 both organizations devoted a great deal of effort to the further professionalization of their activities.
Polymer Innovation Programme
A very important initiative in the polymers field is the Polymer Innovation Programme, for which DPI can be said to have laid the basis in the past few years via public-private partnership in polymer research. With this new programme, the Dutch government is showing that it recognizes how important polymers are for sustainable economic growth and that it is willing to provide financial support to stimulate innovation in this field. In early September 2008, Maria van der Hoeven, the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs, officially launched the programme. She expressed her enthusiasm about the content of the programme and made an appeal to everyone in the polymer sector to help develop polymers based on renewable resources. In this way, the polymer sector can make a major contribution to sustainable economic growth. Mrs. Van der Hoeven’s ministry is making available nearly € 50 million euros over a period of four years to fund innovative research and new business development in the field of polymers. A large part of this money has been earmarked for the pre-competitive research to be carried out by DPI. A smaller part will go to projects of DPI Value Centre. So DPI and DPI Value Centre will carry out the programme, in collaboration with SenterNovem, an agency of the Ministry.
In order to be able to monitor the quality of the implementation of the Polymer Innovation Programme, we will this year carry out an initial evaluation, as a kind of baseline measurement. After two years we will carry out a more comprehensive evaluation, based on key performance indicators, and report the outcome to SenterNovem. In this way, we will be able to account to the government for the implementation of the programme. We have meanwhile reached agreement with SenterNovem about the ‘rolling finance model’. From now on, projects carried out in the context of the Polymer Innovation Programme will be evaluated every two years, and on the basis of this evaluation the stakeholders will make a commitment (including a financial commitment) for the next four years. Most of the projects are PhD projects for which universities, companies and now also the government make a four-year commitment. The four-year commitment is a bold and praiseworthy move on the part of the Minister.
According to the Science and Technology Indicators Report 2008 published by the Netherlands Observatory of Science and Technology (NOWT), DPI’s scientific research has a citation impact score of 2. This means that the research carried out by the scientists working for DPI is of an excellent quality. On 1 January 2009 Prof. Martien Cohen Stuart became Scientific Director within our Executive Board. He will devote a large part of his energies to the further improvement of the scientific merit of the programmes and the output, among other things by introducing a Fellowship programme. In the autumn of 2009 we will have DPI’s research reviewed by the Scientific Referee Committee, an international committee of experts. We will use the results to identify new opportunities and to improve our current activities.
Keeping the innovation momentum going
As a result of the economic crisis, the DPI partners (and definitely potential partners) might be less inclined to make new commitments. At the end of 2008 we anticipated this development. In consultation with a number of large companies we identified a number of highly promising projects that companies are currently forced to put on the backburner or postpone. We are transferring these projects to DPI Value Centre and have dubbed this initiative “From crisis to opportunity”. Via the Polymer Innovation Programme we can assign researchers from universities and knowledge institutes to these projects, and possibly also R&D people from the companies that have transferred their projects to us. The projects are expected to be of a high quality, otherwise the companies would not have selected them for their R&D portfolios in the first place. This means we can make a quick start with them. In this way, the government can provide extra support to industrial innovation, using an existing scheme for which the funds have already been set aside or can be front-loaded. Admittedly, a company that offers knowledge under this programme will have to make concessions in the field of IP if it wants to commercialize this knowledge. But this is a better option than shelving a promising project. In this way, DPI helps keep the Dutch polymer industry’s innovation momentum going in these turbulent times.
Economic added value
Thanks to the excellent research, with an increasing business impact, that we carry out in the field of polymers, we are well on our way to meeting part of the objectives for the Chemistry Key Area. New business in the field of polymers is expected to generate €2.5 billion in extra added value for the Dutch economy by the end of the next decade. In addition, novel polymers will account for 30% of the 50% reduction in the use of fossil resources that the chemical sector wants to achieve within 25 years. One of the ways of reducing the use of fossil fuels is by developing polymers based on renewable raw materials. These bio-based polymers form an important new spearhead in DPI’s programme.
Young DPI Community
International contacts are very important for the quality of DPI’s research. DPI establishes these contacts not only by attracting young graduates for research projects but also by building an international knowledge network. This is greatly facilitated by the fact that DPI is a virtual institute. We do not require top scientists to come to us to carry out research together under one roof; we come to them. This means that it is no problem if one of our scientists, for example a professor, moves to a foreign country. We simply continue the relationship and continue involving them in our research projects, wherever they are in the world.This is what makes the virtual model so powerful. In order to reinforce the relationship with our members and add an extra network, we decided to establish a ‘Young DPI Community’. To this end, prior to the annual DPI meeting in 2008 we organized a meeting that was attended by 60 young graduates. Both the participants and the organizers considered it a highly inspiring meeting. Borealis showed itself to be the perfect host for both events. We would like to thank them for this, and compliment them on this success.
One of our main current challenges is to develop new sustainable materials. There is a great need for innovation, and innovation starts with inspiration. A very powerful source of inspiration is the Cradle to Cradle concept. This represents a paradigm change: instead of thinking ‘linearly’ in terms of ‘from cradle to grave’, we might start thinking in terms of closed loops. This approach will give us a new perspective on the use of energy and materials. By viewing these as interrelated issues we can develop new ideas that might lead to breakthroughs. As an internationally renowned institute, DPI can and will make an important contribution in this field. Our position gives us a good insight into developments in the polymers field across Europe.The increasing emphasis on sustainable development will definitely be reflected in our portfolio of research projects. Cradle to Cradle has stimulated thoughts in new directions and towards new solutions. The current economic situation is providing exactly the kind of environment to capture opportunities in this field. We can and must invest in the future, and now is the time to do it.
Stuart Scientific Director
More information: DPI Annual Report 2008