The Invention Development Fund (IDF) is one part of the larger Intellectual Ventures organization. Paul Levins has been the company’s Director Asia Pacific and EU Monetisation and President, Australia and New Zealand for over five years.
Ahead of the Chief Innovation Officer in London, we sat down with him.
What do you see as the key challenge that you are addressing?
Companies face increasing pressure to innovate in ways that put them ahead of competitors and add value for their customers. At IDF, we want to reinstate inventing as a profession in its own right so industry has access to quality and game changing innovations. We think the best way to do that is to contract inventors globally, paying them to develop solutions, and protecting the IP inherent in those inventions. We come up with solutions that traditional models of innovation simply can’t supply. Because our inventors are chosen on the basis of their diversity (both geographically and from an expertise standpoint), and their ability to think differently.
Would you describe your organisation as having an ‘innovative culture’? If so, why?
Our whole business is about generating innovation through invention. We have a network of over 10,000 inventors globally that we use to assist companies to solve problems. Our experience has been that companies are looking for help, not just on sourcing solutions, but defining the problem. So as an organisation we have to be nimble and across all fields of science because that’s what our customers ask of us. Right now we have customers in industries as diverse as agriculture, finance, IT, and medical devices. And we also have established a number of startups from inventions in our portfolio. It’s the diversity of our inventors, inventions, and our customers that has helped us redefine what it means to be innovative.
Should teams pushing new innovations be placed outside of the main organisation, in something such as a lab?
The most innovative organisations have an internal driver to be innovative, but also understand that not all the great ideas reside within their four walls, so to speak. That is, they realise they need to be open to innovation from outside, especially for the transformational. But open innovation raises a lot of questions for companies :
Have I defined the problem correctly? Who are the inventors? Are they truly inventors, or just hobbyists? Do I have to filter all the ideas? If I find solutions I like, can I contact the inventor again? Will the inventor work with me if I have questions? Am I infringing someone else’s intellectual property? Can I protect the IP in this idea?
These are all questions that we have addressed and have solved for. When a partner asks us to work with them to solve a challenge, we provide all of that service and support. We have hand-picked all of our inventors and know them well. In addition, we believe that proof of concept and prototyping is important. That’s why we have lab facilities in Seattle, Singapore, and Sydney, and also are working with the Fraunhoffer institute in Germany.
With technology converging industries, have you found you now have new, non-traditional competitors? Where are they coming from?
We are in the happy position of being the non-traditional competitor! That’s because we have invested in the creation of an inventor network, and unlike a venture capital company we have very long term return horizons. We certainly use the power of convergence to solve problems. All our inventors get to look at all the problems our clients ask us to solve. So not only do you get many different types of solutions but you get inventors from many different fields of science providing solutions you likely wouldn’t find if you went to a traditional R&D provider. Plus, our service is unique because each one of our over 10,000 inventors have been prequalified.
Finally, an important distinction IDF brings is our ability to share the risk of new invention with our clients. We do this by bringing a huge number of our own inventions that may already suit the requested purpose but that the client did not know existed. We have also already made the investment into finding the best inventors and pre-qualifying them to work with our clients. That is a significant set of risks that have been pre-solved for the client.
What do you think the biggest potential pitfall for an innovation executive is?
There’s not one, there’s a few! First, not trying something new. We see so many companies that not only want to do something different, they know they must in order to survive. Yet they expect to get different results by going to the same provider, using an already overstretched internal R&D department. Second, to do something that really puts you ahead requires an investment of time and money. Too many companies settle for marginal improvement when they could get game changing ideas. Finally, innovation is not a one off event, it’s a partnership. Getting an innovation partner embedded in your business and trusting them to deliver with you is the best way to get results that matter.