Ithaka Life Sciences - Blog

Ithaka Life Sciences Ltd (Ithaka) is a provider of business advisory and interim management services to the life sciences sector.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Open innovation for the developing world

Open innovation is a term promoted by Henry Chesbrough, a professor and executive director at the Center for Open Innovation at University of California Berkeley, in his book Open Innovation: The new imperative for creating and profiting from technology (2003, Boston: Harvard Business School Press). “Open innovation is a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as the firms look to advance their technology”.

The central idea behind open innovation is that in a world of widely distributed knowledge, companies cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research, but should instead buy or license processes or inventions from other companies. In addition, internal inventions not being used in a firm's business should be taken outside the company (e.g. through licensing, joint ventures, spin-offs).

The concept has been adopted most widely in the computing world where open source software projects are built and maintained by a network of volunteer programmers. Prime examples of open source products are the Apache HTTP Server, the e-commerce platform osCommerce, the internet browser Mozilla Firefox and the GNU/Linux operating system.

Open innovation is also beginning to emerge in life sciences as the pharmaceutical industry struggles to cope with declining R&D productivity; examples include:

However, the area where open collaboration may have the greatest potential could be in bringing about genuine innovation in science and technology able to make a real-life difference to billions of poor people in the developing world who can benefit from scientific advances. An example that has really impressed me is Science for Humanity (, a charity that has created a network of scientists and technologists (“solvers”) in order to provide innovative solutions to the urgent problems brought to the charity by developing communities, local NGOs and international agencies (“seekers”).

Science for Humanity was founded by Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield together with Justin Anderson, an IT entrepreneur, and Andrew Doman, a former Director of McKinsey. The aims of the charity include:

  • identify science-based problems in association with their seekers and community partners
  • ensure that the problem has not been addressed or already solved by another party
  • establish projects to tackle the problems and develop viable solutions
  • communicate the project to the Science for Humanity network of scientists and solvers
  • facilitate collaboration and innovation on potential solutions through their network
  • support funding of information gathering and pilot projects
  • develop new models to support the design, development and delivery of innovative solutions
  • share the outcomes to demonstrate new ways of applying science and technology in the interest of developing communities

Examples of current projects include:

  • Green Charcoal, based in Uganda, this project aims to develop alternatives to using wood biomass as energy by finding innovative technologies and machinery for transforming crops, such as candlenut seed kernel, palm seed kernel and cotton stokes, into green charcoal. A solution to this problem could reduce the dependency on forest mass for energy, avert climate change effects on the local environment and people, reduce the time and energy for people to collect wood biomass, and create employment for local communities.
  • The Peru Coffee project seeks to improve soil fertility for coffee production on the eastern slopes of the Andes due to deforestation, insufficient coverage to protect the soil, and agriculture without application of inputs to the soil. Whilst technologies exist to regenerate soil fertility, the solution to this challenge needs to be adaptable to the reality of small producers focused on organic markets.
  • The Ecosan project, initiated by the WAND Foundation in the Philippines, aims to test the concept of ecological sanitation, which explores the response of crops, such as trees, vegetables and coconuts, to Ecosan product treatments (, such as urine and faeces. A solution to this project could improve food security, reduce water consumption, and decrease the spread of infectious diseases.

These are some of the Science for Humanity projects that can meet people’s needs, help to alleviate poverty and contribute to sustainable development. If you are interested in making science, technology and innovation work for poorer people in the developing world then please consider becoming a member of Science for Humanity (both individuals and organisations are eligible for membership) and get involved.


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