Empowering the Freelance Economy

What is open innovation and how can freelancers use it to build their business?

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Taking a cue from the CBI’s Big Fish, Little Fish campaign, which aims for large companies to develop partnerships with start-ups and scale-ups, The Freelance Informer asks, what’s stopping freelancers from doing the same thing?

Freelancers and project contractors (the “little fish”) work with a host of different clients (the “big fish”) day in and day out. This arguably gives them an advantage over your typical start-up founder when it comes to open innovation and its opportunities and challenges. Why? Freelancers have become accustomed to different client working styles, company cultures, demands and expectations. Their livelihoods depend on that manoeuvrability.

“While there are many high-profile examples of success, the term ‘open innovation’ is still often met with a level of confusion and even cynicism,” according to the CBI.

Improving partnerships between large and small firms is part of CBI’s desire to create a competitive and future-focused economy, driven by innovation, that will support UK prosperity over the coming decade.  

The CBI set out its vision for how this will be achieved in Seize the Moment empowering businesses to be at the forefront of positive change. 

In a recent instalment of the business organisation’s Big Fish Little Fish campaign, they provided practical advice and transferable tips from business leaders and innovation experts to help demystify open innovation partnerships. 

What is Open Innovation? 

Here is how the CBI defines it:

Inbound innovation normally refers to organisations looking beyond their own internal R&D team, as well as their usual supply chains, to identify insights, capabilities, and possibly new collaboration partners. They then work together to develop ideas to take to market. 

Outbound innovation refers to organisations that open their ideas and/or information for others to develop into new products and services. This may entail giving 3rd party partners a ’right to roam’ over IP, which is developed in-house and doing licensing deals to share in any profit that arises from their commercialisation.  

Qualities and attitudes that the Big Fish are looking for 

  • Show you are prepared to put skin in the game
  • Address IP early
  • It is easy to get excited by the opportunity, but don’t lose the structure
  • Translate how this innovation partnership will impact the sales and commercial teams on the ground 
  • You are not failing, you are learning”

Where can freelancers look for open innovation opportunities?

In addition to the CBI, Nesta, the UK innovation foundation, is a good place to get a feel for programmes open to promising and innovative ideas. In October, Nesta launched Mission Studio, which will create innovative new ventures to solve pressing social problems. Over the next three years, Nesta will be in partnership with the venture-builder Founders Factory, to spin out and invest in nine new backable ventures that tackle major health challenges and reduce carbon emissions in the home.

Big names, such as GE and NASA have found open innovation or what is also being coined “micro-open innovation” to be invaluable in finding new solutions to problems and in a cost-effective way.

In one case, micro-open innovation at GE helped inspire initiatives at NASA when the US manufacturer was finding it difficult to communicate the purpose of a RFID-Enabled Autonomous Logistics Management (REALM) project team. Steve Rader, Deputy Director for NASA’s Centre for Excellence for Collaborative Innovation at the time, said: “We produced this video for $4500 and it would easily have cost us $100,000 to do any other way.”

The video was created through two challenges: one offered $1500 for a storyboard and the other $3500 for production.

“A contest can help find a freelancer… sometimes you’re not looking for a great idea but an innovator who understands your particular domain,’ said Rader.

Nesta says this is another way in which micro-open innovation is distinct from larger challenge prizes which innovators are unlikely to use simply for screening because of the cost.

Another good place to look for open innovation opportunities or to bounce ideas is through the LinkedIn Open Innovation Discussion Group. Even just doing a search of ‘open innovation’ on LinkedIn is useful, where you will not only find companies that have dedicated OI departments, but you can see who is heading up those teams.

Companies to consider include: Unilever, UK Research and Innovation, SFR, Syngenta, Digital Catapult to just name a few.

But what’s stopping you from approaching dream clients with an open innovation pitch? Absolutely nothing.

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