How could supplier-enabled innovation help you?

Businesses are tapping into the expertise of their supplier network to bring new products to market faster and streamline their processes

Where do new ideas come from? For many organisations, the answer is research and development. But imagine if the R&D department included not only your own people, but those from hundreds or even thousands of your suppliers too.

This is the promise of supplier-enabled innovation (SEI), which enables companies to tap into the expertise of their supplier network to develop new products and services or refine existing ones.

If you have thousands of suppliers and some have R&D divisions in your sector, you’d be mad not to tap into that resource

It’s not exactly a new idea, but according to David Rae, head of the Supplier-Enabled Innovation Center, it is an underutilised one. “If you have thousands of suppliers and a portion of them have R&D divisions focused on your sector, then you’d be mad not to tap into that resource,” he says.

What does supplier-enabled innovation entail?

Companies that combine their innovation efforts with those of their suppliers typically bring products to market faster, giving them a competitive advantage. The inevitable risks and costs of developing new products or services are also spread among a wide network of stakeholders. And due to their specific expertise, suppliers are often able to suggest product improvements that are unlikely to occur to internal teams.

It makes sense to partner with companies specialising in a particular area, says Omer Abdullah, co-founder and managing director of The Smart Cube, which provides procurement, analytics and research expertise. He uses the example of a packaging supplier to illustrate the point. “They’re the ones who have a vested interest in knowing what the latest packaging types are, what the latest packaging sizes are and what are consumers demanding,” he explains.

That’s certainly true in the case of Bayer, which works closely with suppliers such as Schott to find the best packaging for specific drugs. By collaborating early in the ampoule or vial selection process, with Schott contributing its expertise in how certain active ingredients interact with different types of containers, new medication can be brought to market in a quick and safe manner.

Finding the innovators

The procurement team are ideally placed to drive the innovation partnerships behind supplier-enabled innovation, acting as the link between internal R&D, sales and marketing teams, and suppliers. Johnson & Johnson, for example, has focused on turning procurement into a team of “innovation scouts”, seeking out suppliers who understand emerging trends and plan their business accordingly.

This is one of the vital elements of SEI: if you can’t find innovative suppliers to work with, then the whole concept quickly falls apart. If you’re interested in using supplier-enabled innovation to improve your R&D function, for example, “you need to take into account things like what percentage of their [the supplier’s] revenue they are putting towards R&D, their strategic goals and where they’re actually headed as a company”, says Mr Rae.

It can be tempting to focus on the current supply chain when selecting SEI partners, but this may not offer the kind of cutting-edge innovation that will really expand internal capabilities, says Simon McGuire, health systems leader for Philips UK and Ireland. “I believe a good procurement team will ensure any supplier activity is initiated with clear alignment and agreement on capability gaps and unmet customer needs, together with an ability to secure the required technology and skillsets from the marketplace,” he says.

Online platforms can grease the wheels of innovation

An awareness of market trends and shifts, competitor moves and the company’s own patent pipeline is also a key part of an informed view of what suppliers might be able to offer. “For me the most essential element of a good supplier partnership that will deliver is the strong alignment of goals and visions, with clear definitions, responsibilities and objectives from the start,” says Mr McGuire.

Online platforms are a relatively common way of communicating innovation challenges to supplier networks. Philips, for example, has an open innovation portal called SPICE, which allows suppliers, companies and individual inventors to collaborate to both view Philips innovation challenges and suggest ideas of their own. But the success of these platforms depends upon suppliers receiving relevant, timely feedback on their ideas and transparency around the development of any proposals.

Indeed, the trust at the heart of any good partnership flows both ways. “Surprisingly, suppliers do not always take their innovation first to their largest or even their most profitable, highest-margin customers,” says Clive R. Heal, a procurement innovation expert who leads Voicinn, a group of global innovation keynote speakers, and founded and led the Roche Innovation Center of Excellence. “They target customers with whom they have the closest relationships and see the best longer-term growth opportunities.”

Who owns IP?

Both companies should also be clear about who will own the intellectual property (IP) for any new products or services before embarking on a partnership. For instance, would a licensing approach, with the company granted exclusive rights to use a particular technology or service for an agreed period, work best? Or is a joint IP model the better option? Many innovation partnerships fail to clear this hurdle due to competing interests, Mr Heal points out.

Regardless of which ownership approach is agreed, successful supplier-enabled innovation initiatives nearly always follow a long-term approach to innovation, focusing on mutual benefits for both customer and supplier. In other words, a true partnership that runs counter to the “not invented here” syndrome still found in many businesses.

“Overcoming this is difficult,” says Mr Rae. “But with the disruption now happening – the platform business models cropping up, the growth in startups, the fact that innovation is taking place everywhere and not just in R&D labs – companies will have to change, otherwise they’re going to get disrupted too.”