IT contracts specialist Clive Seddon of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that businesses can no longer just develop new products and services on their own if they want to be the most innovative in their market.
Seddon highlighted a new initiative launched by Unilever as an example of how major global manufacturers with strong brands are expanding their opportunities to innovate, by seeking collaboration with partners with new ideas and different expertise.
The consumer goods manufacturing giant has launched the Unilever Foundry where it is encouraging third party innovators to pitch new ideas on how Unilever can use technology to innovate and at the same time support its commitment to "sustainable living".
Innovators can submit their ideas via an online application and successful applicants then have the chance to pitch their ideas to the company either in person or via video conferencing. Successful pitches can lead to pilot initiatives where innovators work alongside 'mentors' within Unilever's marketing team to develop their ideas. The Foundry initiative also provides innovators the chance to win funding from Unilever's global venture capital business Unilever Ventures, including possible buy out of the business.
"Investment is for ambitious, innovative technology companies with a clearly defined business model and a proposition that demonstrates growth potential in a sizeable market," a statement on the Unilever Foundry website said. "We are especially interested in investing in companies in the areas of digital marketing, mobile, content, ecommerce, analytics and data." It said it is looking to "use creative technology to connect with our consumers in new ways".
The Unilever Foundry initiative is evidence of a leading manufacturer running a sophisticated technology operation and acting creatively to foster innovation, Seddon said.
"The initiative seeks to match Unilever's strong brand, scale and expertise with much smaller innovators which may have great ideas but which perhaps lack the infrastructure to take the ideas to market," Seddon said. "Becoming a truly digital enterprise now means reaching out to customers and third party innovators and seeking to capture the best of the best."
Seddon said that Unilever had taken "a bold decision" to say that, in areas such as data analytics, mobile technology and digital marketing, it does not have a "monopoly over all the best ideas" and is prepared to collaborate with a wide mix of businesses to improve the way it does business and how it develops and markets its products globally."
At the centre of Unilever's initiative and those of other digital businesses is the need to collect and harness granular customer information about their use of products and services, Seddon said.
"The ability to deploy tools that can offer insights into how consumers are interacting with the products or services businesses have developed is vital to helping those businesses align their brand strategies, develop new ideas and improve their products," he said.
"It is no longer sufficient for businesses to rely on information that stems from their supply chain about how consumers are connecting with their products and services.
"The expert said that collaborative arrangements raise a number of legal issues that businesses must consider. These include settling questions about intellectual property and ownership; confidentiality around data; ensuring data sharing arrangements are in line with rules that protect privacy and finding the best corporate vehicle to support innovation initiatives.
As many of the potential ideas will involve online collaboration and development, companies will have to work out whether to try to support the activity using existing legacy platforms and systems or whether different channels and infrastructure are required. The success of digital innovation initiatives, such as the Unilever Foundry, depends on moving innovation quickly from concept to market, Seddon said.