Open innovation is the key to overcoming Covid-19 challenges

When companies work with external parties to develop new products and solutions, it can be a "win-win" partnership.


IT WAS when companies were struggling to cope with the Covid-19 fallout that they saw the urgency for digital adoption to manage both current challenges as well as for the long term, said a top executive at Enterprise Singapore (ESG).

Crowdsourcing through open innovation became the "natural option" when these enterprises needed to find new, workable solutions - fast, said Edwin Chow, assistant chief executive officer, Innovation and Enterprise, Enterprise Singapore.

Open innovation is where companies work with external parties to develop new products and solutions. This runs counter to traditional, more secretive means of innovation, where corporates attempt to do it alone.

Open innovation usually involves a demand-led approach where companies - or even the government - frame pain-points or new opportunities that they will pay to address through an open call to tap external sources such as startups and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to jointly develop innovative solutions.

"Companies increasingly realise that open innovation, when done properly, can speed up the innovation process," said Mr Chow. "This enables them to solve operational challenges or bring new products to market more quickly - a critical advantage in an increasingly competitive business world."

It is meant to be a "win-win" partnership, he noted. The company initiating the call will benefit from fresh ideas, while the SMEs and startups get to develop new products with a validated market need.

Working with these larger, more established companies will also help them build a good track record, added Mr Chow.

That being said, he noted that Singapore businesses have always innovated. "We just want more of them to do so," he said.

Growing startup ecosystem

To that end, Enterprise Singapore is working with public and private partners to grow the innovation and startup ecosystem. Platforms set up to do so include the Open Innovation Network, which is a national gateway to aggregate all open innovation challenges run out of Singapore, and the StartupSG Network, featuring local startups and ecosystem partners.

Since July this year, the National Innovation Challenges (NICs) have been rolled out to harness partnerships to develop solutions that will overcome immediate pandemic-related challenges, as well as address longer-term sectoral challenges.

This was launched by Enterprise Singapore, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and National Research Foundation (NRF) in response to the problems enterprises were grappling with on the back of Covid-19.

A sum of S$40 million in funding has been set aside for the NIC to ramp up the development and adoption of solutions, where each challenge is allocated up to S$2 million. A total of 16 NIC challenge statements have been launched in sectors such as aviation, healthcare and logistics sectors since July 2020.

Another avenue is the Open Innovation Network (OIN) that was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat at the Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) x Singapore Week of Innovation & TeCHnology (SWITCH) event last year.

Since November 2019, it has listed a total of 56 innovation challenges with over 277 stakeholders. An earlier initiative known as Gov-PACT, launched in Budget 2017, is one where the government takes the lead to catalyse demand for new solutions through open innovation.

Enterprise Singapore works with the Ministry of Trade and Industry's Intellectual Property Intermediary (IPI), working with government agencies to identify challenge statements that likely require innovative solutions, and supporting SMEs and startups to innovate with them from ideation through pilot trials.

To date, over 35 Gov-PACT innovation calls comprising over 160 challenge statements have been launched and about 70 projects with SMEs and startups are currently in the works or have been completed.

Wong Lup Wai, CEO, IPI Singapore, said that its role is to be an innovation catalyst that creates opportunities for enterprises to grow beyond boundaries, accelerating the innovation process of enterprises through access to its global innovation ecosystem and advisory services.

There are also government-driven initiatives for SMEs and startups keen to tap on innovation opportunities overseas.

Enterprise Singapore collaborates with foreign partners on international co-innovation programmes such as the EUREKA GlobalStars-Singapore call, to help SMEs and startups work with international partners to co-innovate and internationalise.

Most recently, Enterprise Singapore and IPI launched the Sustainability Open Innovation Challenge in November, which saw "strong interest" by global organisations such as Danone, Haier and Sumitomo, which are participating as demand drivers, said Mr Wong.

Mr Chow noted: "These programmes, and others launched earlier, are meant to make it easier for companies, especially the smaller ones with less resources, cashflow and talent, to do so."

By facilitating more such schemes, it is hoped that sustained demand for innovation is created, which will persuade more SMEs to build innovation capacity and hire more engineers and specialists, he said.

This will enable them to compete more effectively through new products and solutions, instead of relying solely on lower cost.

Mr Chow also noted that SMEs are also starting to move up the value chain, shifting from just competing on cost and efficiency, to product ownership.

He hopes such open-innovation platforms can catalyse more demand for SMEs and startups to tide through the crisis, as well as to develop solutions that Singapore will need to reopen safely and recover.

It can also drive economic growth, making Singapore an attractive partner for international firms looking to scale into Asia, he said.

"We understand that during this period, companies are trying to manage the impact of Covid," he said.

"However, we encourage them to press on with their innovation efforts as this is the only way to set them apart in an increasingly competitive world."

A case for open innovation

Singapore startup Gaussian Robotics identified an industry need for an autonomous sweeper that could complement the robotic cleaning services. It is developing an autonomous robotic sweeper with the added functionalities of a sweeper and security patrol through a Gov-PACT innovation challenge involving ESG, IPI, National Environment Agency and People's Association. The solution is currently being trialled at HeartBeat@Bedok. This innovation will be able to autonomously sweep the facility at night while on the patrol for security incidents.