Innovate March 2017

Collaborative Innovation


In an era of increasing connectivity and collaboration, the pace of innovation quickens. But, to succeed at innovation in today’s increasingly competitive global economy, collaborative innovation should become second nature for the companies and organizations that seek to do more than just survive. That is because collaborating at innovation strengthens organizations’ competitive advantages while strengthening — and expanding — a region’s innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Compare this new world order to traditional business practices involving innovation. The old world order called for companies to isolate themselves; intellectual property was fiercely protected and not much thought — if any — was given to collaborating when it involved innovation. Today’s new paradigm calls for companies to have innovation activities that embrace — for sure, with varying degrees of acceptance — collaborations with allies, foes and “frenemies.”

The authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams described such a new world order in their book “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.” It reads “Billions of connected individuals now actively participate in innovation. When these masses of people collaborate, they collectively advance the economy in meaningful and profitable ways. The resultant collective advances in the arts, culture, science, education, medicine and technology reflect the true value and dividends of the collective capability and genius of collaborative innovation.”

And then, there’s this: More and more, larger companies have become more comfortable collaborating with smaller companies. If larger companies feel their downside risk is mitigatable when collaborating with smaller companies, they will engage. In particular, given a growing number of low-cost markets and the emergence of an increasing number of low-risk channels, larger companies may pursue collaborative innovation arrangements with smaller companies due to the upside potential.

The smaller companies benefit from the arrangement as well. They are often able to perform tasks that larger companies are unable to handle because larger companies lack particular trained skills in a technological niche or are too bureaucratic to move fast enough. Plus, smaller companies are often willing to operate in market niches that don’t provide enough profit potential for larger companies to serve. Given these realities, collaborative innovation is the answer for both companies. Both benefit symbiotically but also grow separately as viable, stand-alone, profit-producing companies.

Found within the art of practicing collaborative innovation is a strategy I call the “whale and remora” for the symbiotic alignment it represents. This symbiotic alignment between large and small companies has fueled entrepreneurial growth and accelerated innovation activities around the world, both in cities (Seattle, Boston and Austin) and regions (Silicon Valley, Western Europe, the Middle East, China, India and Korea, along with other Asian counties). In each area, alignments between large and small companies produced innovation breakthroughs. The innovation collaborations produced win-win outcomes and created a ripple effect in a region’s economy and a nation’s gross domestic product.

Similar to what happens in nature with symbiotic relationships, alignment between large and small companies can produce positive results. For bigger companies to thrive and profit, working with smaller companies provides an opportunity to “get fast” with more nimble enterprises. Employees of the larger company witness firsthand how and why employees of the smaller, resource-limited company operate; conversely, employees of the smaller company experience what it is like to tap into the resources and systems of a larger company.

Together, both groups of employees align in a type of open-ended interaction. This activity strengthens the bonds of their companies’ collaborative innovation — and the results include exchanging of ideas, sharing of expertise, leveraging of experience and the combining of proprietary insights and intellectual know-how.

A region’s creative class and its expanding entrepreneurial ecosystem benefit from the practice of collaborative innovation. The practice of collaborative innovation embraces a wide array of different, oftentimes symbiotic relationships between larger established companies and smaller startup ventures. The relationships are often defined by the types of activities that the companies engage in, which include joint research and development projects, strategic partnerships, direct investments and joint ventures.

Professor Mark Esposito of Harvard University describes a promising future: “Collaborative innovation is the next big idea. It allows businesses across value chains to create new collaborative business models that are anchored by solid foundations of intrapreneurship and symbiotic alignment. Collaborative innovation is the engine of modern, agile companies. It is practiced by nimble companies that are capable of creating new capacity; this expanded capacity pioneers radical new ideas while testing the limits of markets. Collaborative innovation is economic growth’s best friend.”

In the Gainesville region, collaborative innovation can be practiced by the symbiotic relationships between our larger and smaller companies. To do that, I recommend the following prescription for success:

Gainesville’s incubator/business accelerator network has the breadth and depth to keep the region’s larger companies happy. The major players in the network (UF Sid Martin Biotechnology Institute, the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College’s Center for Innovation and Economic Development and Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center) have attracted and nurtured entrepreneurs, innovators, startups and their game-changing technologies, seasoned professionals, highly educated college graduates and investor capital. The region’s larger companies know these are the places to swim with remoras — and to find a place where they can create the symbiotic relationship that leads to success.

Smaller companies value being given the chance to succeed — and larger companies give smaller ones this opportunity. As entrepreneurs know, merely getting a shot to demonstrate that they create value is good enough for most small companies. Gainesville’s waters are teaming with talented, capable remoras and our pools are stocked with highly motivated young professionals yearning for a chance to prove themselves.

Investing in big companies is less risky, which is why these companies attract more investor capital. Conversely, smaller companies don’t attract as much investor interest due to the higher risk they represent. When smaller companies align with larger ones, investors see the win-win benefits of the partnership. Investors may also be more willing to invest in smaller companies aligned with bigger ones because the risk of investing is decreased.

A community-wide commitment to the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Innovation Gainesville 2.0 initiative makes both large and small companies feel welcome and important.

By investing small dollars in big ideas championed by smaller companies, investors bridge a funding gap faced by entrepreneurial ventures. Not all small-dollar investments pay off, but the ones that do give small companies the boost they need to attract the interest of larger companies seeking a symbiotic relationship.

While Gators will always swim atop Gainesville’s animal kingdom, we have a lot to learn from whales and remoras. Gainesville’s innovation economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem stand to benefit immensely from mutually beneficial partnerships and the lasting impact that collaborative innovation will have on the region’s economy.


DAVID WHITNEY serves as the assistant director in the UF Engineering Innovation Institute. Whitney previously served as the entrepreneur in residence in the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering and teaches both undergraduate and graduate students in the college. The courses, Entrepreneurship for Engineers and Engineering Innovation, use real-world examples and the experiences of entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovators to teach engineers how to change the world. In addition to his roles at UF, Whitney is the founding managing director of Energent Ventures LLC, a Gainesville-based investor in innovation-driven company. Whitney is also co-chair of Innovation Gainesville 2.0, a regional-based initiative in which people and organizations collaborate to strengthen Gainesville’s innovation economy by bringing 3,500 jobs and securing $250 million in capital investment to the region.

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