COILabs: Collaborative Open Innovation Labs- platform for co-design activities between universities and SMEs

Harshika Singh
Politecnico di Milano

Gaetano Cascini
Politecnico di Milano

Filippo Silipigni
Fondazione Politecnico di Milano

The "innovation-driven development" is now a strategy of the whole world. Large enterprises have competencies and resources which could be dedicated to New Product Development (NPD), while SMEs often neither have the money nor do skills to systematically contribute to innovation, therefore they mostly rely on intuitive capabilities of individuals. They lag behind innovation mainly because of lower investment towards them and secondly due to lack of knowledge about new technologies and methods. Furthermore, SMEs are normally characterised by limited finance and infrastructure (Zimmermann & Thomä, 2016). The most common factors which inhibit innovation are resource limitation, culture, short-term orientation and skill limitation. At times the common answer from SMEs is that they are too busy to innovate and they don’t know how and where to find the needed resources.

Interaction with the society, innovative skills, knowledge transfer and utilization of scientific research has been emphasized (Olmos-Peñuela, et al., 2017) to create well-being and innovative competitiveness among SMEs, hence COILabs. COILab is the main output of a project called OIPEC: the Open innovation Platform for University-Enterprise Collaboration. OIPEC is co-funded by the Erasmus+ Program of the European Union (Project reference number - 561869-EPP-I-2015-1-IT-EPPKA2-CBHE-JP). OIPEC provides an opportunity which allows SMEs to propose ideas that could be explored and developed with an Open Innovation scheme, where the network of competencies is provided by the universities.

In the past few years, due to increasing globalization, open innovation and advanced ITC capabilities, the structure of a traditional corporate R&D lab has changed to a more dynamic ecosystem which should have strong links to (1) universities and government labs both within and cross country, (2) practice of collaborative innovation and (3) shared resource networks to share knowledge and benefits (Jelinek, et al., 2012) (Caloffi, et al., 2015). Hence, the mission of COILabs is to improve intensity and scope of universities' local and international relations with enterprises by expanding collaboration to mutual partnerships in new product/services development. This university and enterprise collaboration has a goal of generating novel products/services or improving existing ones. COILabs platform not only aims at introducing new technologies but also helps in reducing time and cost needed for generating users acceptable products.

"Collaborative Open Innovation Labs" or COILabs operate for multi-country co-creation activities in developing, managing and validating concepts of new product/service systems. Herein, COILabs describe open collaboration among different stakeholders, in this case, universities and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) (Böhmer, 2015). COILabs are a platform for innovative solutions based on the set of courses it offers and systematic guidance on co-design activities provided by the experts. The courses defined in the article are provided to enterprise executives (as executive curriculum) and to university students. The companies can also independently design the project on subjects covered by OIPEC curriculum for students that will feature innovation and process/product improvement. This would help students grow their competence and skills (de Freitas, et al., 2014). The curriculum is based on the three essential areas of new product development which include concept development, rapid prototyping and innovation management.

The first part of the paper consists of related literature on collaborative open innovation platforms and labs between university and SMEs. Then it explores in detail the proposed COILab concept where the idea, structure and working of the COILabs have been described. After that, the curriculum and the process flow implemented in COILabs are mentioned. So far COILabs exists in Milan (Italy), Grenoble (France), Lappeenranta (Finland), Moscow (Russia), Vladimir (Russia), Tianjin (China), and Hebei (China). Their success stories and local COILab description which caters the local need are communicated here.
The paper also shares some results of the COILab activities on how the methods and tools offered in this kind of an open innovation platform could result in better knowledge sharing and creative results. The results of one such activity show the more creative outcome of the concept even though these methods (included in module B of the curriculum) were applied without prior training. In the end, the quality assessment results of COILab activities show participants’ satisfaction and feedback. Quality control results also tell about the average cost, person-hours and duration of the COILab activities held in the past.

COILabs platform would help the countries involved in the OIPEC project as well as others to strengthen their ties among different nations and providing continuous support to research and educational activities. The future work includes validating the platform’s sustainability, formalising the university-enterprise partnerships and plan of activities to further expand COILabs.