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Home > Business > Special

The world is their R&D lab

Jena McGregor, | January 26, 2006

It was the American Idol of the Jiffy-envelope-and-ink-jet- cartridge crowd. At the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York, 12 nervous finalists awaited the coronation of the $25,000 grand prize winner of the Staples Invention Quest, a national search for the "next great office product."

Art Fry--inventor of the Post-it Note and, as the MC bellowed, "a modern office-products legend!" was in the house as a celebrity judge. And here it was: The Envelope, removed with due formality from The Briefcase and passed to Tom Stemberg, Staples' founder and chairman. The winner (can you stand it?) was . . .

Off to the side was the guy who had dreamed up this stunt in the first place: Mike Collins, the CEO of a four-year-old New Hampshire company called Big Idea Group. BIG is an inventor's agent of sorts. It acts as a filter between inventors and businesses, creating an intelligent, efficient way for companies to tap into and harness the unruly world of innovation outside their own R&D labs.

The Staples event was actually a very public exaggeration of how BIG operates. Normally, the company sets up 6 to 10 targeted road shows a year, inviting inventors to pitch their products. It selects the cream of the crop, refines and shapes the ideas, then delivers them to appropriate companies for development. Inventors don't pay to join the network; BIG gets paid (generally, 50% of the take) only if a company licenses an idea.

Increasingly, too, corporations have enlisted BIG to direct its network at solving a specific new-product problem. Sunbeam Products Inc. did just that and is now developing one of BIG's ideas. Staples was looking for new products in the "paper category" before Collins pitched the Invention Quest. (BIG is still working on the mysterious paper products.)

Collins, who has a degree in engineering, started in venture capital at TA Associates, where he sniffed out bright ideas by calling on hundreds of small companies in need of funding.

Then he got an MBA at Harvard Business School, where he met Clayton Christensen, a professor well-known for his 1997 book, The Innovator's Dilemma (Harvard Business School Press), about the barriers to progress that companies create for themselves.

Christensen, a BIG investor, inspired Collins with the notion that systems can be put in place to accelerate innovation. So BIG, originally intended as a network for toy inventors, also works with companies to improve their internal innovation processes.

Collins hopes to help Staples create an internal "quest" that rewards employees' ideas for improving Staples' business practices, and he's working with Gillette and Sunbeam on their idea flow.

"We really wanted to work with [Sunbeam] on process first before we started showing them hundreds of ideas," says Collins. "It does you no good to start bringing in ideas if a corporation can't digest them."

BIG is onto something powerful, says Henry Chesbrough, a management professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting From Technology (Harvard Business School Press, 2003).

Where economies of scale are modest, or in sectors like retailing where R&D efforts are nearly nonexistent, looking externally for ideas can prove wildly productive. Sure enough, other innovation middlemen have appeared, hoping to capitalize on the demand.

InnoCentive connects scientists with corporate R&D departments. Bridge Services, a project in Australia run by former IBM exec John Wolpert, focuses on pharma, biotech, and information-technology ideas.

And what of Staples' Invention Quest? Out of 8,300 submissions, the winner was the WordLock, a lock whose combination is formed by letters in easy-to- remember words rather than numbers. The WordLock may or may not ultimately appear in Staples stores someday. Either way, it's truly a big idea.

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