A new generation of R&D


Finland’s Aalto University has become a hothouse for the new global, collaborative R&D.

Although all companies strive to build a happy customer base, those with a high satisfaction level sometimes stop reaching for new customers – or new ways to serve existing customers. These self-satisfied companies are often tempted to cut back on research and development, especially when confronted with changes such as evolving global markets, hard-to-believe new technologies and global economic pressures.

To avoid R&D inertia, many companies are revamping both their R&D structure and approach. They are reaching outside their own walls to conduct development efforts in collaboration with other companies, governments, academic institutions and their own customers. Finland’s Aalto University is one organisation taking a leading role in showing new ways to approach R&D.

The rise of co-creation

“Key societal changes shape the ways of creating new products and services and getting them to the markets,” says Seppo Laukkanen, Aalto’s associate vice president for knowledge networks. He says companies are forced to develop new ways to engage their customers, create new products and deliver value both to the market and to society in general.

He cites four key drivers for these changes: Virtualisation, digitalisation and consequent convergence of technologies, the transition from independent technologies to interdependent configurations, billions instead of millions of affluent consumers, and the shift from mass production to subjective user experiences.

“The world has become web of connected actors,” Laukkanen says. “In order to succeed, an innovation has to fuse to the wider systemic sphere.”

In practice this means that innovations are co-created by a large group of people from both inside and outside of the company. “The borders are blurring. Product and new business development has become a collective act within and across the organizations,” he adds.

However, Laukkanen says, one aspect of R&D– the commitment of senior managers – cannot change. “Participation helps to understand the business potential of the new idea and gradually develops management’s commitment to the innovation. This is often a necessary condition to success.”

Learning innovation

At Aalto, the schools of business, technology, arts and design have formed “factories” that bring different disciplines into a productive dialogue with both private and public sector organizations.
An example is the Aalto Design Factory, which has worked on R&D projects with Finnish and international partners such as Kone, Panasonic, Ericsson, Metso, GE, Philips and UNICEF.

“An interdisciplinary and iterative design approach is a robust way to tackle development challenges in the present world,” says Kalevi Ekman, head of Design Factory.  “However, this interdisciplinary and intercultural way of working is not easy. It can only be learned by doing. The goal of Design Factory is to educate the best designers in the world by applying learning-by-doing- principles.”

More than 40,000 students and other visitors have come to Aalto University from around the world to study innovations in R&D, and the International Design Factory has sister operations in Shanghai, Melbourne and Santiago, with more coming soon.

Fuelling new business

Much of the Aalto approach to R&D is aimed at entrepreneurs, including the Startup Sauna programme for aspiring entrepreneurs from Northern Europe and Russia. “Early-stage start-ups get coaching and mentoring from experienced serial entrepreneurs and investors in an intensive one-month programme,” says Ilkka Kivimäki, the head coach, who notes that more than 90 companies have graduated from the twice-yearly program since 2010.

Aalto sponsors other programmes at specific industry segments, including software and mobile technology. One of the companies growing out of the Aalto efforts is Blaast Ltd., which has developed a compact smart-phone platform based on cloud technology. Blaast plans to bring affordable mobile technology to a billion people in emerging markets who don’t have phones now.

Aalto is also behind the famous Slush conference, which brings together early-stage start-ups to meet top-tier venture capitalists and media from around the world. In 2012, Slush gathered more than 550 companies and 250 investors and journalists, along with more than 3,000 others. Slush 2013 will be held in From November 13-14 in Helsinki.

Text by Timothy Harper

Published March 18, 2013

Category: Market updates