By Dr. Sze Tiam Lin, Chief Technology Officer at IPI
An innovator figured out how to convert shrimp waste to Chitosan and Chitin, which can be used in anything from cosmetics to environmentally friendly packaging. Then IPI’s technology scouting service made his method commercially viable with an introduction to Mitsui.
In 2018, somebody approached us at IPI with a fishy problem. Robin Low, the CEO of ARB Technologies, had been researching and developing innovative solutions in biotechnology and life sciences for more than two decades. One such anti-microbial composition could convert marine waste into higher-value products, and Low was confident that it could result in commercially viable products if he could find the right like-minded strategic partners.
We at IPI agreed with him, and during TechInnovation 2018, we set up a meeting between Low and an innovation scout from Mitsui, one of the largest corporate groups in the world. It would be the first time the CEO would be presenting his company to such a large MNC.
Fortunately, Low landed an opportunity. Mitsui was looking to convert shrimp waste from its farm and processing plants in Vietnam into a higher value product, chitin. ARB’s core technology could do one better, converting this waste into chitosan, an even higher value biopolymer with multiple applications.
Both parties started negotiations on the agreement to invest in this project, with IPI offering ARB advice related to IP along the way. In July 2020, a research collaboration agreement between the ARB and Mitsui was signed.
Although all it took was one simple agreement between a technology provider and a technology seeker to create a valuable product, innovation is not something that happens by accident.
In fact, the ambition and drive to produce innovation will bear greater fruit now as we pivot out of COVID-19. Management consulting firm McKinsey and Company discovered that companies that invest in innovation during a crisis are likely to reap benefits in the difficult period and for years thereafter. Those that did so in the 2007-2009 Great Recession outperformed peers in normalized market capitalization by 10% during the recession, and up to 30% for several years afterward.
To maximize their innovation capability, firms must look externally to keep abreast of trends, identify useful emerging technologies and pinpoint opportunities for partnerships. But how do we even begin to do that?
Businesses can start by encouraging a culture that is open to external ideas. Management has an important role to play and should initiate cultural change through leadership by example and allowing this change to happen from a top-down approach. They must support this change and all the risks that come along with open innovation in order to drive tangible outcomes.
It is worthwhile to introduce the concept of a technology roadmap to support organizations in their business and innovation transformation journey. Technology road mapping helps companies understand the external and internal drivers that influence a business.
Knowing and understanding these drivers helps a company envisage where to position their business, as well as how to produce or enhance products and services to increase market share.
At this point, they can then identify technology gaps that need to be filled, and whether they have the in-house capability to address them, or if they need to source them externally.
This is where IPI’s technology scouting comes into play. We can help companies who are looking for new technologies to help address gaps, as well as evaluate their suitability. To do so, we scour a number of sources, including universities, start-ups, and the VC community, as well as third-party data sources such as patents or market reports.
Trade conferences and technology pitching sessions are another valuable resources via which to track the latest technical developments and identify innovative startups.
Meanwhile, most universities and research institutes have special departments and programs to publicize their research in order to facilitate technology transfer (e.g. Nanyang Technological University has an innovation and enterprise company called NTUlive).
This is supported by a global network of solution providers, a panel of vetted technical experts, Innovation Advisors Programme of senior industry veterans, as well as technology and innovation managers who know what it takes to commercialize technology.
Some of this work can be automated through the use of technology scouting software that analyzes data from online sources to identify studies, patents, and technologies relevant to a company’s needs, although this might only be practical for larger corporations who have resources.
More importantly, the final decision still needs to be made by a human who understands the context behind the technology to be sourced and can make judgments about whether it is suitable for commercialization.
Over the years, we have helped companies as diverse as those looking for technology solutions to address sustainability issues, automate agriculture production, improve waste treatment and valorization, or for point-of-care diagnostics for infectious diseases.
What we have learned in that time is that it isn’t just about finding innovative technological solutions, it’s also about making sure your company has the right culture to make the best use of them. Whatever discoveries you have found must be shared with all levels in your company, from management to on-the-ground staff, so that the organization as a whole participates in the innovation process.
The great thing is, once a company has inculcated innovation into its culture, it is well on the road to transformation. After signing the partnership agreement with Mitsui in 2018, ARB realized they could incorporate the chitosan produced into their own final products. The work in that area, then, offered multiple licensing opportunities and potential new revenue streams.
The experience of teaming up with a large MNC from R&D to commercialization also gave ARB important insight into their customers’ requirements, mindset, and company culture.
Going forward, ARB intends to become a leading global player in sustainable natural biomaterials upstream, while producing quality finished products downstream. Their goal: To become a vertical one-stop-shop for sustainable living.
This ambition means the team has engaged with IPI again to conduct technology scouting, looking for new cutting-edge solutions, and more like-minded partners to collaborate with, continuing the cycle of innovation.
Through its multidisciplinary expertise and global network, IPI provides enterprises with access to innovative ideas and technologies. It also facilitates and supports enterprises’ innovation processes, including commercialization and go-to-market strategies.