It was 2003 when Henry Chesbrough introduced the concept of Open Innovation in his book called Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology, succeeding in an almost paradoxical feat: finding a way to “innovate innovation”. With his book, the economist, professor and executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at UC Berkeley, marks the threshold between closed and open innovation.

While at one time the “closed” model forced companies to compete solely with the use of their own resources, personally overseeing all of their processes for fear of losing important information to competitors, the advent of Open Innovation is overturning the previous model in that business innovation is systematically drawing heavily on external collaboration, ideas and resources. «It’s a radical change in mentality – explained Chesbrough. From controlling the innovation process to influencing it: a shift that is by no means simple or automatic».

The principles of Open Innovation

According to the principle of Open Innovation, in order to promote technological progress it is necessary to take into account not only internal ideas and resources, but also tools and skills from the outside, in particular through the collaboration with start-ups, universities, research institutes and non- competing companies. As a result, it is faster to implement new technologies and access business opportunities, while reducing costs and the risks associated with innovation (while sharing the benefits).

However, Chesbrough himself suggests that “Open” companies should not make this one serious mistake: investments in human resources and the strengthening of distinctive skills should not be replaced by the exchange of ideas and knowledge with the external environment in order to accelerate innovation processes. Open Innovation, therefore, is not about setting aside internal competencies for the benefit of external ones, but is rather a means of connecting with knowledge outside the perimeter of the company, thus increasing the value of its resources and competencies. Without adequate investment in internal resources and human capital, many companies are destined to fail on the path to open innovation.

Another central aspect of the economist’s analysis is the challenge that Open Innovation represents not only for companies, but also for universities: according to the Berkeley professor, there is an attitude characterizing American universities that is different from European ones: «Today there are far too many universities on the Old Continent doing high-level scientific research, yet are not, on average, engines and generators of innovation at the level of American universities». Chesbrough explains that nowadays in America, private companies contribute (and not only financially) to top-level research in colleges: whereas in Europe there is still a rigidity that determines borderline situations. One example is the Dutch university that has forbidden its teachers to spend the summer months (or a sabbatical year) in private companies to make use of their knowledge or enrich their training.

“The exponential paradox” and the role of universities

One can even reach the so-called “exponential paradox”, a concept that is discussed in Chesbrough’s latest book, entitled Open Innovation Results: Going Beyond the Hype and Getting Down to Business. According to the author, «technological development on so many fronts is exponential, but the average productivity of our mature economies is stagnant. And this forces us to discuss only the redistribution of wealth, rather than allowing us to create new and abundant wealth».

What can be done to overcome this roadblock? According to the professor, «traditional institutions, including academic ones, should become protagonists of an all-round innovation process. Innovation must first be generated and disseminated, then absorbed and used by broader segments of the population, to whom cognitive tools must be provided to take advantage of it».

Some changes are also taking place in Europe: for instance, the Belgian University of Leuven (with a focus on semiconductors), the English University of Cambridge and the Italian LUISS. At the latter, in Rome, a Chair on Open Innovation has been established, financed by Maire Tecnimont and assigned to Henry Chesbrough.

Maire Tecnimont takes on a Chair

The Organizing Innovation course at LUISS is designed to analyze the principles of Open Innovation, the set of dynamics capable of creating value and the aspects that differentiate it from other forms of collaboration. One example are the “unprecedented” partnerships, able to offer knowledge, ideas and skills, as well as unconventional, unexpected, unthought of and in some cases inconceivable information. Maire Tecnimont and LUISS’ shared objective is to identify a method to metabolize the results, tools and the innovation itself into the company’s very DNA.

Emphasizing the importance of this professorship was president Fabrizio Di Amato, who defined Open Innovation as a true Copernican revolution for industries in any sector: «I believe that today, more than ever, there is a need for an open-minded approach that helps companies to evolve and open up as organizations. If innovation is based on the ability to change mindsets in order to meet the challenges posed by digitalization and sustainability, an ecosystem involving different stakeholders must be created, one that is open to “cross-fertilization” between universities, research institutes, companies, start-ups, the world of finance, public authorities, incubators and accelerators».

Innovation and sustainability: NextChem's strategies

This is becoming a central theme for some emerging sectors with a high level of sustainability and technology. Maire Tecnimont is well aware of this, and on the principles of Open Innovation it has created and developed NextChem, the Group’s company specialized in green chemistry, which has recently become a case study by Professor Chesbrough himself.

The Group, led by Fabrizio Di Amato and Alessandro Bernini, has chosen to govern green chemistry innovation in a non-traditional way compared to established processes: this has resulted in the activation of an ecosystem of partners, suppliers and collaborators who are able to take advantage of all the opportunities green chemistry has to offer. With the advent of NextChem, a different entrepreneurial system was born, one that allowed us to take a look at a new set of ideas, and expand the company’s contacts with small innovative businesses, universities and start-ups, recognizing them as possible sources of added value. Guided by this vision, R&D specialists have found innovative solutions through these new models of cooperation with external partners.

In its role as an incubator of technologies, NextChem has positioned itself as a System Integrator along the green chemistry supply chain, above all thanks to the model of circular districts. It is this context in which waste can become, with the contribution of chemistry, the key to decarbonizing a number of industrial processes through the recycling of post-consumer plastic packaging waste or the dry portion of municipal waste, up to now mainly disposed of in landfills. According to the CEO, Bernini, «we need to create synergies in areas that have a predisposition for transforming waste into products. With entrepreneurial skills and innovative technologies, circular districts can become economically competitive, unlike other green technologies that are still too expensive to have a market».