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Creating opportunity: Innovation networking and open innovation

–by Teresa Spaeth

Innovation isn’t an accident. There must be a culture and environment that fosters innovation and that next great idea. And once there is a great idea, there needs to be a system in place to see that idea through to reality—from making a business plan to product testing and marketing to getting the product on shelves in the marketplace. It’s an age-old adage: “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and the same is true when it comes to innovation. That’s part of the reason that innovation networking is a key program at AURI.

Networking is instrumental in several steps of the innovation process. Here are a few ways that networking helps see ideas through to reality for the entrepreneurs that work with AURI:

  • Generating ideas:
    Each year, AURI organizes more than 50 meetings with Minnesota agriculture organizations and the agriculture industry to identify needs and opportunities in four core areas: food, renewable energy, coproducts and biobased products. This helps ensure that we are doing research that addresses real needs and current issues.
  • Selecting the best ideas:
    Research that just sits on a shelf doesn’t help anyone. AURI’s active dissemination efforts put the applied research results into the hands of start-ups and businesses that can determine if and how an idea would be successful.
  • Implementing ideas in the marketplace:
    AURI provides contacts with industry experts—such as co-packers that can help package a new product—plus hands-on technical assistance. Product testing, processing and plant design, materials sourcing and pilot lab access are just a few examples. And if AURI can’t do it, we have the network to find who can.

This process of generate-select-implement aligns closely with open innovation, which is also known as external or networked innovation. Open innovation enables a company to connect with someone who has critical technology or equipment to allow a business to advance their product concept. This helps uncover new ideas, reduce risk, decrease time to market and leverage scarce resources.

These partnerships can be a great opportunity for small- and medium-sized businesses to connect with larger companies. Several large Minnesota agriculture companies have already embraced this concept and have asked AURI to work with them to identify clients that have technologies and/or products that would be valuable additions to their product lines. This is just one more role of the innovation network.

As the saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” The same is true for innovation—you can’t innovate without taking risks. Networking helps offset these risks by ensuring that new ideas meet real needs, that ideas have a real chance of success and that entrepreneurs have the resources and team in place they need to be successful. There will always be eggs broken in the process, but with innovation networking, you get a better omelet more quickly.