“Bringing together what’s already there and filling in the gaps.” That’s the one-line take-away of this article. In my previous article, I introduced new concepts for smart society and creative ecosystems, including Creative Community Collider and Gearbox. Now, I will introduce a potential business model for them. One that steps away from the first reflex of creating a new legal entity when setting up a collaboration initiative. To do so, I draw my inspiration from Solliance (short for SolarAlliance), an Eindhoven-based collaboration initiative focused on R&D for next-generation photovoltaics.
Creative Community Colliders – such as Creative Ring, Blenders – bring together people from many different backgrounds: artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, civil servants and more. All these people are facing complex challenges and are looking for creative solutions. They all have different backgrounds, skill sets and interests, but where they align is where the magic happens. For Solliance that alignment was solar energy and specifically thin-film photovoltaics.
Solliance brought together a number of key players in thin-film solar technology, all with their own areas of competence. But why did all these people need to get together in the first place? To understand that, we need to go back a few years before Solliance and look at the developing thin-film solar marketplace.
Observing the problem
Back then, each of the members that would later come together to form Solliance were busy researching and developing their own pieces of the puzzle related to thin-film photovoltaics. For example, imec was mainly investigating semiconductor processes, TNO was performing applied research into manufacturing equipment, ECN was looking more at the system level of solar cells and modules and TU/e was performing research into materials. While each of them had a focus on one or more aspects of the development chain, there also was a lot of overlap.
Anyone who was interested in thin-film photovoltaics – say a company wanting to bring these as a product to market – would need to find and talk to each of these research organisations to get the complete picture. For example, at an international conference or trade fair, that could mean visiting all the booths of all the organizations to compile a consistent activity portfolio of the market. Unfortunately, this meant that none of these organisations were able to create traction for their research programs as public and private funders were unable to ‘see the wood for the trees’.
In the domain of Creative Ecosystems and Smart Society, I observe a similar situation nowadays. Crossovers between disciplines are high on everyone’s agenda. The technical and industrial community reaches out to creatives and, vice versa, the creative community organizes programs for technical literacy and entrepreneurship. From within each of their organizations, they offer a piece of the puzzle on how innovators can be helped to make impact with their ideas and projects. But because of the fragmentation, these innovators can lose a lot of time in finding the right place to be or are unable to access help that is readily available. Let me give two concrete examples.
Tools and equipment
In all cities with a maker community, there are numerous locations and organizations who have some useful – sometimes very specialized– equipment that could help innovators move forward with the development of their projects. Some are obvious and already openly advertising, like fablabs and ateliers. Some are less obvious or open, but are equally willing to share, like universities, corporate research labs, etc.
An individual would have to be very well connected and/or spend a lot of time contacting with each of these organisations to find tools needed for that crucial next step in the development of their project. And that assumes that they are already aware of the existence of all these organizations within their immediate vicinity.
Challenges and open calls
A similar fragmentation can be observed in challenges and open calls. The examples are almost countless. One organization sets up a hackathon for innovations in the public domain. Two weeks later, another organization communicates an open call for experimental IoT projects. Shortly thereafter, yet another organisation issues a challenge for inclusive neighbourhood projects. And so on.
As an innovator, I could have an idea that potentially fits all three scenarios. But, again, it could take me ages to find out what calls are available, and to assess the relevance and quality of what is being offered versus what I am expected to bring. Because, let’s face it, there are still too many organisations out there who feel they can use hackathons, challenges, and open calls to harvest creative ideas for a penny.
These are just two examples. The same can be said for access to coaching, workspaces, and pathways (opportunities to network and get relevant references).
Creating the solution
Going back to the solar cell case. what did these research organisations do that completely changed the scenario for the better? They formed an alliance under which they could all work together on the same topic. Solliance was born. Behind the scenes, they would still be employed by the same parent organisation or be a student at the university, but they could share their knowledge and expertise as part of a common framework. In concrete terms, that meant that a project leader from TNO might be working with process engineers from imec and PhD students from the TU/e. And all of them would have a Solliance business card and operate under the Solliance umbrella.
More importantly, it meant that if you wanted to know anything about thin-film solar, you only needed to talk to one organisation: Solliance. And it worked! Today, Solliance gives its name to a dedicated 4.000m2 research facility on High Tech Campus Eindhoven and allowed the founding members to secure millions in funding from public and private partners. More importantly, Solliance is recognised as the leading player for thin-film solar energy and is associated with world record research results on various fronts. And all of this by ‘just’ renaming and reshuffling some existing activities between established organisations.
“Schematic representation of the contribution of each founder to the Solliance R&D portfolio. Oversimplified for the sake of clarity.”
Creative Ring Eindhoven
While setting up Creative Ring Eindhoven, we take inspiration from the Solliance model. Creative Ring Eindhoven is not a company or a non-profit, but an association of organisations and individuals that are working together across a wide range of disciplines to solve the complex innovation challenges that are out there.
Unlike Solliance, the scope of its creative collaborations is rather broad: from next generation wearables over smart IoT to sustainable development. However, just like Solliance, each organization driving the initiative forward brings in a piece of the puzzle. And by working together, they can leverage their skills and competences.
“Schematic representation of how a collaboration initiative can be defined by ‘merely’ renaming activities. Contributions of each founder oversimplified for the sake of clarity.”
The sharp point of the pie
So, how do these collaborations work in practice? Before we look at the collaborative process, we first need to look at the organisations and individuals involved. I am going to use the analogy of pie segments (see pictures above). Each piece of the pie represents one group or individual. The outer part of the pie segment is the core activity of that entity, whether that is their core business, artistic activity, governmental or educational responsibility.
The middle segment is related activities. Perhaps new markets or technologies that a company is considering moving into, an alternative medium for an artist or a new area of research for a university. And at the sharp point of the pie is that one thing that the organisation or entity is struggling with in the scope of the middle segment. By bringing together different entities, all facing similar challenges at that sharp point, they can leverage their expertise to come up with a solution together.
Of course, with all those sharp points, it can sometimes get a little painful. Going back to the example of Solliance: if – say – a PhD student from TU/e who is working with a team of engineers from imec under a project leader from TNO, comes up with a good idea for the next generation of solar panels: who benefits from it? Ideally all parties should benefit equally but what does that mean? The PhD student might be happy with a topic for his thesis, but if five imec engineers were involved and only one TNO project manager how do you split the rights to the new patents? Clearly, these issues need to be agreed by all parties involved, but that doesn’t mean that sometimes one of the parties feels like they should have a bigger share of the pie.
The same is true when translating the concept to creative community colliders. While the easy message is: keep doing what you do, just shift the relevant resources and funds to a central governance and budget, the practical implementation takes a lot of time and effort in gaining and maintaining trust and good agreements. Nevertheless, the Solliance example shows that it is worth the investment.
Working it out together
Keeping with the food metaphor, I remember as a kid getting a piece of chocolate from my mother. I was incredibly happy with that piece of chocolate. Then my mother gave two pieces of chocolate to my sister. Suddenly, I was disappointed with that one piece that had until then made me happy. What had changed? Only my perception.
My mother left my sister and I to work it out. And to an extent that is what needs to be done in this collaboration model. You bring everyone together, but the partnerships that develop are largely based on trust. If there is an issue, it needs to be mediated of course, but it is up to the partners to come to a fair agreement on how to share their pieces of chocolate. And I think we can all agree that it is better to have to come to an agreement on who gets the biggest piece of chocolate than for us all to survive on bread and water.
Why, oh why?
As mentioned in the introduction, I specifically chose the example of Solliance because it steps away from the first reflex of creating a separate legal entity. While a lot of the mechanisms described can as well be applied in this more traditional context, why would you choose not to?
For me, there are two main reasons: ownership and priority. Let’s start with priority; by which I mean execution and actionable content. Setting up a legal entity is already an intensive process. Even the choice of the most suitable structure (profit, non-profit, cooperation) is not always straightforward. Then, there are the legal bylaws that need to be made. Including a governance model that must be officially published and can result in a less flexibly optimized organisation in view of progressive insights. As a result, a lot of effort can go into discussions at the start of a collaboration, that distract from its actual purpose. The alternative model described in this article provides a solution that allows groups to take immediate action and start collaborating under the same umbrella. It fits much better with current trends such as lean startup, minimal viable products, pilots, etcetera and gives the freedom to build and fine tune core foundations in parallel to executing them.
Then there is the topic of ownership. From personal experience, I have noticed a fundamentally different behaviour towards collaborative environments which are set up more informally than those set up as separate legal entities. Without going into detail, it largely has to do with the fact that a separate legal entity is typically outside of the founders’ organisations, while the model described keeps activities within them. This fundamental difference is subsequently reflected in all kinds of behaviour and decisions towards the initiative. It would take a separate article to elaborate on this, but to give an example of just one type of behaviour in favour of the more unconventional approach: it avoids running into the problem that the only reason for continuing the collaboration is the fact that its exists. Far too often, organisations are set up to fulfil a certain need. Then, after some time, the organisation has grown to such extent that it finds itself unquestionably important, even if the need for its creation has already been fulfilled. Obviously, needs and reasons for being change and organisations revise their strategies and activities constantly. But especially when dealing with (semi-)funded organisations, it is my belief that a more effective governance can be achieved using collaborative models built on the fundamentals of Solliance.
There is much more to say on the workings of creative community colliders. This article touches on the high-level collaboration, merely scratching the surface of all the nuances and complexities behind this innovative model. But I hope it brings some inspiration and I am always willing to provide more in-depth insights.