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ICL’s Open Innovation: External Innovation Partnerships and Model

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18 March 2024, Israel: ICL’s Open Innovation: External Innovation Partnerships and Model

Part one of a two-part interview with Ziv Kohav, ICL Open Innovation Lead

Open innovation is transforming the flow of new ideas and concepts. It connects academics, researchers, and startup founders with organizations that have the skills and resources to turn innovative ideas into viable products. ICL Open Innovation Lead Ziv Kohav explains the company’s groundbreaking open innovation platform and sets out its vision for technology-based business growth.

What is Open Innovation?

Open innovation is a concept pioneered by leading business author and academic Professor Henry Chesbrough. A simple definition of open innovation is that it is a mindset that encourages collaboration between companies, organizations, and innovators with a common goal of developing original research and taking it to market as viable products. It also focuses on monetizing unused intellectual property and assets through third-party cooperation. 

The innovator platform or accelerator facilitates the journey to market, reducing the rates of startup failures and helping partners achieve their true potential in a shorter time period. Open innovators are proving that the old-fashioned attitude of “secrecy and silos” is generally obsolete and counterproductive.

Exciting high-tech innovation is taking place in vital sectors like agriculture, food, medicine, pharmaceuticals, dermatology, and sustainable clean energy. Programs like ICL Open are building strategic partnerships with innovators whose goals are to have a positive impact on the world. 

New technology that can help achieve zero hunger, and significantly reduce carbon footprint, pollution, and disease is being systematically identified and rapidly brought to market. There is an emphasis on sustainable business growth and the development of products that benefit humanity. 

ICL is harnessing innovation at every level, internally and externally. Two particularly exciting external innovation ventures are ICL Open and ICL Planet StartUp Hub. They are key pillars of ICL Innovation, bringing next-generation technological solutions to unmet needs and future market opportunities across the entire spectrum of ICL’s global operations. As the Open Innovation Lead, Ziv Kohav plays a major role in developing and channeling ICL’s game-changing culture of open innovation. 

Ziv is with us today to reveal how it all works at ground level, and how information age open innovation is changing the technological business landscape beyond all recognition. 

For a detailed insight into the concept of open innovation, check out our blog post Unlocking the Power of Open Innovation: A Blueprint for Business Growth [add the link once it is published].

Introducing Ziv Kohav, ICL Open Innovation Lead

Ziv Kohav is responsible for identifying and meeting open innovation challenges and spearheading the platform’s operations on a strategic level. He is also closely involved with the teams on a day-to-day basis, meeting innovators, shaping projects, and helping to implement the benefits of open innovation across ICL’s global operations and 12,500 employees. 

Ziv’s energy, expertise, and ability to channel talent and enthusiasm among ICL Open people, are driving the program forward. He’s here today to give us deeper insights into the nuances of ICL’s Open innovation strategy, particularly through the lens of the ICL Open Program. He will also share some personal insights into how a culture and mindset of innovation are transforming ICL’s competitiveness and ability to enter new markets.

Ziv, welcome! Thank you for joining us today. Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you came to be ICL’s Open Innovation Lead?

Hi, thank you for inviting me – it’s a pleasure! My background is in mathematics and economics, but I grew into innovation because I was always either working in startups or in established companies that used innovative technologies. For example, I worked for many years for a startup that did interferometers for ophthalmic lenses, contact lenses, and intraocular lenses. I was always at the point of contact between the business side and the technical side, or between business and R&D.

I discovered a knack for taking the scientific principles or technological principles that a new technology or a new opportunity presents and developing and applying them to all the different fields in which we operated. This passion for tech innovation and engineered materials led me to ICL in 2012. I was part of the founding team for what used to be called ICL Innovation, which evolved into ICL Open.

This was a pivotal period when ICL was evolving from a commodity-based business into a more specialty business. I was lucky to be part of this journey and to always be at the leading edge of this conceptual change. There was a realization that not all innovation would come from internal sources, but would also come from external sources.

I had the mindset and the expertise in different aspects of business development and some even marketing (although I’m more focused on business development and innovation). The main thing was that I understood the benefits of open innovation and how to make it happen!

What is your role and what are the objectives of the ICL Open Innovation Program?

As the leader of the ICL Open Innovation program, my role is to foster a culture of groundbreaking innovation and strategic collaboration. Our approach involves scouting and incubating ideas and technologies that align with ICL’s unmet needs and long-term market goals. 

We’re not just looking for any innovations; we’re on the lookout for those that fill specific gaps, whether it’s to break into new markets or enhance our existing operations. This proactive search involves scouting, publishing our requirements, and welcoming unsolicited proposals and suggestions, reflecting our openness to diverse sources of innovation.

I oversee the collaborative process that involves multiple teams, setting strategic directions, and transforming opportunities into actionable projects. I love the opportunity to meet academics, researchers, startup founders – anybody who’s an original thinker with a fresh perspective and new ideas that match ICL’s needs.  

One of the key pillars of our approach is the rigorous selection process we’ve put in place. This ensures we not only match market demands with innovative solutions but also conduct thorough technological and business due diligence. This meticulous process helps us advance only the most promising projects.

To put it all in perspective, we have around 30 active projects at any given time and adding about 15 new ones each year, understanding that a proportion will fail. That’s inevitable with high-risk new technologies, but it is also the high-reward nature of innovation. As for funding, the ballpark figure to support these projects, is around $100K a year per project, depending on the project. 

Our work doesn’t stop at just selecting and funding projects. We actively assess between 500 to 1,000 technologies and startups annually. That’s a lot of innovation! This extensive engagement is crucial for maintaining a vibrant portfolio of projects, which, despite the risks, holds the potential to drive significant advancements and yield impactful results. Understanding what open innovation is and its huge potential helps us appreciate the complexity of predicting market and technology outcomes.

I understand that you devised a structured process from market need identification to collaboration and due diligence. Can you tell us more about it?

Sure. We built a structured yet adaptable process into the open innovation platform because we knew from the outset that managing open innovation challenges is inherently complex. It is not just about identifying concepts, discoveries, products, and innovative applications of existing products with potential, but also establishing whether the technology is a fit for ICL – and if it is likely to remain relevant in the rapidly evolving market landscape. 

To handle these challenges effectively, we’ve broken down our method into six main steps. These steps help ensure that we not only capture the most promising innovations but also foster their growth in a way that aligns with ICL’s strategic goals and market needs. Let me take you through these steps:

  1. Identify and publicize an unmet need or market opportunity.

Our approach begins with the crucial step of identifying and publicizing unmet needs or market opportunities. In this task, our technology scouts play an indispensable role, complemented significantly by the vast networks of ICL employees. These scouts, along with contributions from our internal staff, are our eyes and ears in the field and within the industry. 

They continuously explore new scientific publications, startup ecosystems, and industry conferences, while also leveraging internal insights and connections to uncover groundbreaking technologies that align with our strategic objectives. This dual-source approach ensures a wide-reaching perspective, tapping into both external innovations and the rich, diverse knowledge base within our own organization. 

We also work with standout organizations, like Start Life in the Netherlands, and Wazoku, which amplify our scouting efforts and assist in identifying promising leads. Together, all these collaborations form a dynamic ecosystem for scouting, significantly enhancing our capability to identify promising opportunities that can drive ICL forward.

  1. Meet with an innovator and assess their concept.

Once we’ve identified a potential fit, we engage directly with the innovators. This ‘meeting of minds’ is vital for assessing the viability of the concept and exploring how it might be tailored to meet our strategic needs. This stage is critical for establishing a mutual understanding and exploring the concept’s adaptability

  1. Apply a process of technological (and business) due diligence.

Following this collaborative assessment, every concept undergoes a rigorous process of technological and business due diligence. This phase is critical, ensuring the innovation not only meets our technical criteria but also aligns with our strategic vision, vetting its feasibility and potential for success.

  1. Gain approval from an executive committee.

Once the due diligence is complete, the concept is presented to an executive committee for approval. This is a critical step, as it determines whether or not the project receives the necessary backing and resources to move forward.

  1. Reach a mutually acceptable contractual agreement.

Upon receiving approval, we work towards reaching a mutually acceptable contractual agreement with the innovator. This often involves licensing arrangements and sets the stage for the innovation’s transition towards commercialization.

  1. Assign the project to a business unit and steer its ongoing journey to market.

Finally, the project is assigned to a specific business unit, marking the beginning of its journey to market. This phase is characterized by careful steering, milestone achievement, and ongoing adaptation, ensuring the project remains on track to deliver value.

This process can take a minimum of 5 years, but it is worth it because the funnel really works. By industry standards, our method is quicker, more streamlined, and reduces risks. Like I said before, we process up to 1,000 original concepts a year – and that is set to rise. Without our organized method, we could never handle the sheer volume of innovative ideas we do. Structure is absolutely vital, it’s the only way to ensure fair and effective decision-making. 

That certainly makes sense. Can you highlight a particularly successful key partnership that demonstrates the tangible outcomes of ICL’s open innovation efforts?

Absolutely! A good example is our partnership with Binghamton University in New York. This collaboration was initiated when one of our scouts discovered groundbreaking research by an American scientist, Professor David Davis, who had identified a novel signaling molecule. 

This molecule was found to have the unique capability to disperse bacterial biofilms, a significant challenge in both medical and industrial settings. The scout saw the discovery as a potential fit with ICL’s bromine business, sparking an innovative project that would eventually lead to the development of a new product.

We recognized an opportunity not only to enhance the performance of our products but also to address the stringent regulatory barriers associated with introducing new bromine biocides to the market

The journey from discovery to product development was marked by a collaborative spirit and a shared commitment to innovation. After a promising initial meeting with Professor Davis, we embarked on a path that required thinking outside the box to see how the discovery could fit ICL capabilities and requirements, we found a match, applied, rigorous due diligence, obtained committee approval, and swift contractual agreements to secure this promising technology. 

We quickly involved our central R&D institute, TAMI, for further development. This partnership not only resulted in the submission of a joint provisional patent but also set the stage for the upcoming launch of CDA.

We used the molecule to create a completely new microbial solution that neutralizes bacterial biofilms. Because the new signaling molecule is benign, we were able to overcome the tough regulatory requirements that make it hard to launch new biocide products. 

This case exemplifies the core of our open innovation strategy at ICL: leveraging external discoveries and expertise to bring to market solutions that effectively meet our customers’ needs and adhere to regulatory standards, all the while promoting sustainable practices.

What contribution do ICL employees make to sourcing innovation opportunities? You have around 12,500 staff across your global operations. Are they innovators too?

Yes, very much so! We have an internal innovation platform called BIG or the Business Innovation for Growth program. All employees can submit ideas for approval and the most suitable ones go into the accelerator. BIG is amazing but it’s not part of my purview. What I can tell you is that we have successfully embedded innovation in the company’s DNA, we encourage employees to think outside the box and think of ways to improve processes and products, not just in their areas, but across the organization.

Our people are highly experienced and very sharp, and they come from all kinds of professional backgrounds. Each employee brings their own experience, a network of professionals, and personal contacts. If they see an opportunity or a fit, they’ll bring it to us. This is maybe the other definition of open innovation – it’s a process that is open to everyone, and everyone is a potential innovator. 

What kind of challenges do you encounter trying to predict market and technology outcomes?

Technology – digital, data, AI, IoT, machine learning…everything  – is evolving at a huge pace. I already mentioned that it can take a minimum of 5 years to turn an original innovation into a marketable product (and that’s if we’re lucky). It can be very hard to predict whether the amazing disruptive technology that we’re so excited about will even be relevant in 6 or 7 years – never mind a decade from now. That’s one of the reasons for exhaustive due diligence during the funnel.

We try to mitigate the risks with a portfolio approach. It’s a basic investment strategy, like the stock trader who hedges and creates a diversified portfolio. We know that some of our projects will fail, for whatever reason. The goal is to have enough pots on the boil so that the failures don’t hurt us unduly.

Closing Thoughts: Shaping the Future Together

Open innovation is more than just an information age mindset, serving as a crucial link between innovators and producers to address significant challenges and bring ideas to life. The pace at which game-changing ideas are adopted and turned into viable products is accelerating.

Facing the challenges of the 21st century, the role of open innovation in driving sustainable, impactful change has never been more critical. ICL, through initiatives like ICL Open and the ICL Planet StartUp Hub, is not just participating in this global dialogue but actively influencing the future of various industries and communities around the world. Our collaboration with visionaries, thinkers, and innovators demonstrates our commitment to not only envision a better world but to help make it a reality.

ICL is keen to forge collaborations, especially in developing next-generation fertilizers, technologies that enhance the safety and extend the lifespan of energy storage systems, technologies for LFP batteries, flame retardants, biocides, AgTech solutions, and Food Tech solutions.

If you have a solution for an unmet need, please contact Ziv directly. Let’s innovate together!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Ziv Kohav, where we’ll delve deeper into ICL’s Open Innovation domains and collaborative opportunities.

Also Read: Protecting Basmati Rice: Punjab Bans 10 Insecticides with High Residue Levels

(For Latest Agriculture News & Updates, follow Krishak Jagat on Google News)

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