This blog post is part of a series on successfully managing open innovation programs. In this series, I talk with experienced innovation managers to understand how they've built an open innovation capability in their organizations and how they strive to make this capability increasingly stronger.

Here, having an open innovation capability refers to mastering the ability to successfully combine internal knowledge and resources with external ones to create something new. There are many flavors of open innovation and three general ways of getting it done. At HYPE, we categorize the different flavors by the main type of stakeholder that is engaged. The big picture looks roughly like this:


Involving researchers in open innovation

In this post, we dive into open innovation with researchers and explore why pooling academic insights through online collaboration platforms can help entire scientific fields move forward at an increased speed.

Innovating with researchers is pursued for a variety of reasons. Asking researchers to answer online calls for proposals, participate in projects, or contribute to hackathons and other ideation exercises can result in rapid solution finding, valuable exchanges, and generally, a more accurate mapping of capabilities on both the organizer and participant side.

In the long run, it can result in joint publications or "twin wins." Twin wins can better serve society as they help advance basic as well as applied science. For example, in terms of rapid solution finding, NASA's attempt to crowdsource with researchers (mainly non-domain experts) "was particularly successful in the challenge of predicting dangerous solar storms, where it produced a breakthrough within a mere three months," (source: HBR). However, this method's drawback was that resident experts saw "open-source methods as a fundamental challenge to their professional identities." Just like any mode of open innovation, accepting the results is deeply influenced by culture.

Researcher open innovation can also be employed to help alleviate social problems. In the UK, BAXI Heating engaged with leading academics from Coventry University to address a pressing social issue in the United Kingdom: fuel poverty. In the US, the National Science Foundation (NSF) gathered 200 education representatives to discuss how to engage more underrepresented minorities in STEM research.

These examples illustrate that open innovation with researchers represents an excellent vehicle for technology transfer and social impact creation alike.

To learn more about how building a dedicated open innovation program can facilitate scientific research, I talked to Moritz Fontaine, Discovery & Preparation Officer and Innovation Manager at the European Space Agency.

Fontaine also shared how the Open Space Innovation Platform makes ESA's mission more accessible to space researchers, industry experts, and space enthusiasts in Europe.

About the European Space Agency

ESA_emblem_sealThe European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe's gateway to space. Its mission is to shape the development of Europe's space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world.

Headquartered in Paris and with major sites across Europe, ESA is a true European organization with 22 Member States. Its missions range from Earth observation satellites that support climate change research and agriculture or disaster management to probes that analyze distant planets. Examples of ESA's work include BepiColombo, Europe's first mission to Mercury, and the Cheops telescope, which searches for planets around nearby stars. ESA is also an active member of the International Space Station community.


ESA headquarters in Paris, France (credit: ESA)

ESA conducts research and development in all fields in the upstream and downstream sectors. As such, the organization is working closely with Europe-based industry and academia to find the best solutions for the most challenging space-related questions. The organization has long embraced open innovation, which has proven a source of immense advantage.

About the Open Space Innovation Platform

As of 2020, ESA restructured its "Basic Activities" into three elements, representing three types of innovation efforts: Discovery, Preparation, and Technology Development. These efforts range from early blue-sky research to discovery projects and are at the beginning of ESA's seamless innovation chain.

In this blog post, we will focus solely on the Discovery projects, which arise from different sources, including calls for ideas from internal and external stakeholders. ESA effectively designed Discovery projects to create paradigm shifts – these are the projects that beckoned the creation of the Open Space Innovation Platform (OSIP).

ESA implemented OSIP as a unique tool for the Discovery element of its Basic Activities to involve external partners more actively in its innovation efforts. The goal was to simplify and streamline the entry point for industry, academia, and research organizations to work together with ESA.

In addition to the ESA Discovery team implementing OSIP, other programs and directorates also use the platform to run calls for ideas. Since launching publicly in spring 2019, OSIP has grown considerably and has seen encouraging results. "This has worked really well," Fontaine said. "We are delighted with the response to OSIP from our colleagues, and many have run interesting calls that have picked up lots of interesting ideas."

More importantly, the platform has also started to generate a strong community. "We are aiming to build and nurture a community of space technology enthusiasts that enables external partners to collaborate with ESA to contribute to the future of space," Fontaine said.

"We are aiming to build and nurture a community of space technology enthusiasts that enables external partners to collaborate with ESA to contribute to the future of space," - Moritz Fontaine, ESA.

The process of collecting ideas from researchers and society

The first step in setting up a platform for collective intelligence capturing and sharing, such as OSIP, was to find an appropriate audience and to connect it to a relevant topic. Below, a few notes to describe this process in detail.

Campaigns vs. Channels

The first collaborative innovation activities on OSIP were idea campaigns that focused on remote sensing of plastic marine litter and on enabling harbor-to-harbor autonomous shipping. The campaign themes gradually diversified to include lunar surface exploration, off-Earth manufacturing and construction, and even model-based system engineering and new usage of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for space missions. As with any campaign, these activities searched for solutions to specific questions and had a set time frame.

The team used channels to house open calls for ideas that focused on more general topics. ESA created one of its first OSIP channels for co-funded research activities. It proved immensely popular, but feedback from OSIP users revealed that other project types could also benefit from having such an outlet.

“We received the feedback that having a channel for people to submit ideas for any of our Discovery idea development pathways would make it easier to work with ESA," Fontaine said. "So, we launched a new Channel called the ‘Open Discovery Ideas Channel’ where we sought ideas for co-sponsorship projects, early technology development projects, and system studies.”

esa-channelsA screenshot from the Open Discovery Ideas Channel

The response to this open channel has been very encouraging and provides a new and interactive way to start innovating with ESA, a first for the agency. The biggest paradigm change really is the unique possibility to exchange with idea authors after they submit their ideas, and before ideas are evaluated. ESA experts can discuss and support the idea maturation interactively and informally, which helps both ESA and the idea authors generate relevant and highly innovative ideas.

The response to this open channel has been very encouraging and provides a new and interactive way to start innovating with ESA, a ‘first’ for the agency.

The process and team

In terms of process, rigorous evaluation always follows the idea gathering. Next, the innovation team invites the authors of the most promising ideas to mature their thinking into full proposals. The latter is done with the help of an OSIP Channel targeted towards the specific implementation scheme.

The small and agile OSIP team manages the platform from a technical, content, and communication perspective. “The workload – which includes managing ideas, meeting with evaluators and campaign managers, and preparing follow-up activities – is immense, but the positive response from industry and academy and the exciting activities that have already kicked-off makes it very rewarding work,” Fontaine said.


Ensuring quick cycle times

To ensure that the flow of ideas on the platform remains constant and that the audience (engineers, researchers, postdocs, citizens) remains engaged, OSIP moderators and evaluators provided feedback to every submitter within a reasonable time frame. The average time between the initial idea qualification and sending feedback to the authors is about one week. This is an impressive result for a relatively new platform and process.

Additionally, the average time between submitting the matured draft research proposal and the selection is less than one month. The longest time delays come from the authors developing their idea into a research proposal, getting the university/co-sponsoring support letter, and drafting the required CV. The innovation team was delighted to learn that the idea submission and evaluation process was effective and that submitters could mature ideas quickly.

Feedback and transparency

The cornerstone of a vibrant, well-functioning open innovation platform is clarity. To this end, all idea submitters on OSIP were given full transparency and could check the status of their ideas in real-time, creating trust in the process. Furthermore, ESA experts gave feedback on all submissions, regardless of their nature. This commitment, while hard work, encouraged a larger number of contributors.
The cornerstone of a vibrant, well-functioning open innovation platform is clarity.

Not surprisingly, the participating research institutions particularly appreciated the timely feedback, increased transparency, and easy support during all phases directly via the comments function on OSIP. For these institutions, OSIP quickly became the go-to place for their ideas and funding proposals. “For research institutions, it is great to have the opportunity to actively propose new ideas to ESA no matter what topic they cover, rather than responding to a specific call for proposals,” Fontaine said.

Furthermore, transparency about the various collaboration models available helped extend the existing pool of partnerships. "The main workforce that develops research in academia is made of a mix of PhD students and research associates (postdocs)," Fontaine said. "Schemes to support PhD students are often based on a co-sponsorship model; hence OSIP applies very well to these cases. The direct involvement of ESA gives extra weight to the research we develop, allows us to extend our research collaborations, and, more importantly, helps with the adoption of our results by the space sector.”

Campaign and channel results

ESA has issued nine thematic campaigns under Discovery since the start of OSIP. Below, we outline three of those campaigns:

Remote Sensing of Plastic Marine Litter

For the first campaign run on OSIP, ESA sought innovative ideas to detect, identify, quantify, and track plastic litter in salt and freshwater systems, including shores and coasts. The Remote Sensing of Plastic Marine Litter campaign attracted and created a new community on the emerging topic of the contributions of space to address this increasing environmental problem (which is also captured by the UN Sustainable Development Goal 14). It propelled Europe and ESA to the forefront of the topic and provided a unique way for ESA to interact early with innovators from industry and academia.
Image from the Remote Sensing of Plastic Marine Litter campaign (credit: ESA)
This topic proved popular with the research community. In total, 58 ideas were submitted – all of which were high-quality and on-topic. Those involved profited positively from the campaign. The opportunity to interact with ESA specialists, build new teams, and exchange ideas was all extremely valuable for the marine litter community.
In total, 30 ideas made it to the next phase. The campaign's preliminary results confirmed the value of remote sensing to address the issue, build up new knowledge, and provide first indications of current capability and needs. All activities from this campaign are currently running, although Covid-19 restrictions make field and lab testing procedures more difficult.

Lunar Caves

The ESA Lunar Caves System Studies aimed to advance European capabilities associated with exploring the subsurface of the Moon through novel and innovative technologies. Lunar caves are one of the most fascinating frontiers of exploration on the Moon, allowing us to access tens of meters of subsurface environments where the geological records are pristine, and the stable environmental conditions could be favorable for human habitats.

Image from the Lunar Caves campaign (credit: ESA)

The campaign attracted many industrial SMEs and research institutions and created a new community in Europe looking for technological solutions for planetary caves exploration and defining the scientific objectives and potential future robotic missions to planetary caves. The high interest and number of proposals received from European industry and academia on the topic confirm that this type of mission could be highly inspiring for advancing space technologies and science.

New Ideas for The Use of Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) Components

The OSIP campaign on COTS components covers one of the most challenging aspects of space electronics of the last few years, e.g., to understand how and when to use promising components for terrestrial application in space, profiting from the large availability, advanced performances and functionality, and the cost advantages of COTS with respect to the traditional approach. COTS appears as one of the most promising paths opened by NewSpace.

The campaign attracted 130 ideas, 52 of which were selected to mature into proposals. The ideas were on the overall COTS strategy, radiation, design mitigation techniques and reference designs, COTS tests and in-orbit data, and materials and processes. The evaluation of the submitted matured proposals is ongoing.


A screenshot of campaigns in ESA's Open Space Innovation Platform

Further reading: You can find regular updates on ideas sourced via OSIP here.

Challenges and lessons learned

Looking back, OSIP is already clearly a worthwhile endeavor. When asked about the top three lessons learned, Fontaine and his team suggested the following:

  1. Having a dedicated online, open innovation platform (even with minimal customization) is a great utility. Today, the team does most Discovery projects through OSIP, and many other ESA programs use the platform as well.
  2. Some topics can become more popular with the crowd than others – and that’s a good thing. It’s essential to have an online collaboration space that is relevant both to the public and space experts.
  3. OSIP has helped provide quick and simple access to ESA and its early-stage innovation activities. Users especially appreciated this as some struggled to collaborate with the organization using traditional means. All OSIP contributors have adapted fast and have created new, previously impossible ways to interact in the project's early phases, resulting in exciting projects being brought to life quickly.

OSIP successfully lowered the entrance barrier to ESA’s innovation pipeline – an impressive achievement given the complexity of this type of work. Today, OSIP allows ideas from diverse sources to be visualized in a simple, efficient, and transparent manner and for various stakeholders to network in new and unexpected ways. As user feedback has shown, the system and process can be continuously improved, and this task is highly effective if done collaboratively.

With this new vehicle in hand, ESA is prepared to boldly go where few space agencies have gone before: a voyage into deep (open innovation) space.

Learn more about HYPE's Open Innovation Solution here

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