Companies today recognize the value of embracing open innovation (OI) and tapping an outside pool of experts to help them compete and grow by accelerating their innovations. At the same time, scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs and research labs see how working with leading organizations can help them to elevate their solutions to new markets and build their businesses. Despite this fact, challenges remain for both solution seekers and providers around building these collaborative relationships for mutual benefit.

Some of the initial OI concerns have already been identified and solved. For example, companies used to worry that opening up their challenges and needs to a global network of external resources would permit competitors to gain insights into their strategies. But today, organizations increasingly recognize that openly seeking solutions from external scientific and technical experts can ensure their position as innovators. One method of addressing internal concerns about disclosing too much is to rephrase their needs statements generically (e.g., “recyclable foam for composite panels”) in order to disguise their true end uses.  Solution providers have been leery of wasting time and effort trying to promote their technologies to “window shoppers,” and are now savvier about finding OI networks that can link technology to companies that have immediate needs.

Both seekers and providers worry about protecting their intellectual property but are developing new strategies and approaches to agreements that are clear and that fairly recognize each party’s contribution.  What’s helpful is for seekers and providers to understand these and other concerns in order to build a foundation of trust. We brought both sides together to discuss just that at our recent NineSigma Innovation Leadership Summit 2016. Here is some advice they shared to “meet in the middle”:

Understand Differences in Culture
When an opportunity knocks, solution provider Sumitra Rajagopalan, founder & CEO, BioAstra Technologies said it’s important to approach a potential relationship with empathy, openness and an understanding of the differences in culture between the organizations. For example, small companies with a solution to provide can often move much faster than Fortune 500 organizations, who need to bring multiple parties into major decisions, and deliberate on contractual terms. Providers can respond accordingly by becoming truly ingrained in solution seekers’ organizations, and mirroring how they work. Over time, as they have built a stronger relationship, everyone will feel better about changing processes for mutual benefit.

Be Upfront on IP
Solution providers such as Katherine Kost, CEO, Element-Y said it is critical to have good faith discussions around IP at the start of any relationship. She suggests entering into an engagement with two distinct phases—first creating concepts of mutual interest, and then spelling out an agreement of commercialization intent, including specific royalties. This enables both sides to move forward without worries of any surprises or risks late in the partnership.

Kevin Stark, Ph.D.
Vice President, Technology Solutions, NineSigma

Embrace Mentorship
Sometimes solution providers are so excited about their technology or idea, they want to jump right in and share everything up front with a company. Blaine Childress, Open Innovation Manager and Research Scientist, Sealed Air Corporation has seen this happen firsthand. He said solution seekers should not be afraid to put their mentorship hats on and advise providers to hold back until there is an agreement in place that respects confidentiality on both sides.

Find Middle Ground
Picture this: a solution seeker and solution provider come to the table, but they’re speaking different “languages”. They might intend to say the same things, but when it comes down to it, they each have unique deliverables and goals. It’s absolutely essential for providers and seekers to find that middle ground where both are on the same page with the goals, pace, process and level of disruptiveness.

Building Bold Visions Together
Corporations and technical experts can join forces to drive bold visions for the future together, but only if they can confidently share ideas, explore solutions, and forge new partners accessible through open innovation. With the right preparation, open dialogue and aligned expectations, solution providers and seekers can build lasting, trust-based relationships that generate mutual value and results.

Kevin Stark, Ph.D. is Vice President, Technology Solutions with NineSigma (, a global innovation company specializing in Open Innovation. Contact him at or @KevinStark.