… once said a brilliant post doctoral student from the Ecole des Mines (over coffee) after a seminar there in 1995 put on by the CSI (probably at that time the FC Barca of innovation studies). For 2 days we’d had amazing fireworks from Michel Callon, Phillipe Laredo, Philippe Mustar and the post-doc. That’s where and when I realised the power of ANT. In those days the CSI was publishing an annual innovation scoreboard in La Recherche (Palmarès des entreprises les plus innovantes ») based on ANT indicators and, true enough, there was not much room in those indicators for SMEs.
But that was before Chesbrough and Open Innovation
So, yesterday, 18 years later, in the same room at the Ecole des Mines (with a nice view of the Jardin de Luxembourg) it was great to hear and see that things had changed.
About 20 participants heard Guy Caverot, open innovation manager at BA Systèmes, tell us how the company had used an open innovation mindset to diversify its products and services from its traditional « moving things around with robots » systems and services in the paper, food processing, food packaging sectors, to completely new sectors like construction and health.
Thierry Weill, professor at the Ecole des Mines (Stéphanie Fen Chong’s [ITMP03] PhD supervisor) hosts these interesting innovation management seminars under the aegis of the Ecole de Paris du Management. He’s part of another excellent innovation management team at the Ecole des Mines. (There is actually a third one making the school even richer in the innovation management field than the city of Barcelona is at football, but that’s another story!)
So, we met BA Systèmes, an SME based in Britanny with an 18M€ turnover and 120 employees of whom 50% are engineers. The company was founded in 1975 and is owned by 5 associates. It’s a European leader in mobile robotics and 14% of the budget goes into R&D. Their specialty is AGVs – automated guided vehicles. Sometimes a fleet of 17 AGVs glides around factory floors. They cost around 100k€ each. « We sell robot systems that guarantee mobility ». Here I wondered how far the service concept had penetrated this hi tech industrial company. Johanna Liinama, in her excellent 2012 PBI thesis on Integration in Project Business, reminds us how Finnish industrial companies now see themselves as providing « solution offerings ». Instead of offering « the best engine » a company like Wartsilla offers « the best power supply« . Companies such as Kone do not « provide elevators » and « lifting equipment » but « people flow in buildings » and « lifting businesses« . Even the hardest nut and bolt is part of a service. This was what Kim Wiktrom, Magnus Gustafsson and Magnus Hellstrom discussed with Bruno Latour and a team from ITMP (Henry Roux de Bézieux, Pascal Cottereau, Stefan Csosz and myself) in 2004 in the vaulted basement of the self same Ecole des Mines during the second Franco Finnish research seminar on project management. And knowing Finland, I think that unless a company is deeply thinking that way it’s not going to use it as a slogan.
In 2006 BA Systèmes wanted to diversify its activities. 10 SMEs in the Britanny region got together to see if they could innovate better. Themes came up like: helping projects emerge, enroling partners, understanding the innovation ecosystem, organising the company for innovation, financing innovation, reaping benefits from the results and keeping up performance. At the same time, BA Systèmes did an innovation literature review and identified key concepts like Open Innovation, Gatekeepers and Teece’s Dynamic Capability Framework i.e. « the firm’s ability to integrate, build, and reconfigure internal and external competences to address rapidly changing environments. »
In this introductory part, Guy told us how the firm created a new job profile – innovation director – and named three people as technology gatekeepers. Their job was to provide the company with an Open Innovation service. Their mission was to carry out business monitoring (prospective markets and partners), kick start projects, make sure they run well and that the benefits are properly harvested. Here I thought about Torkel Tallqvist’s 2009 PhD on Leadership in Repetitively Innovative Companies (also at PBI). He looked at 6 Finnish SMEs which had been innovating successfully for 50 years and found that the relationship promotors were one key success factor. And I suppose that Jürgen Hauschildt’s idea of relationship promotor is almost identical to a technology gatekeeper who provides open innovation.
There have been 12 OI (open innovation) projects in the last 6 or 7 years of which 3 were presented.
Project 1 started as a 1,7M€ research project with the CEA and INRIA. The idea was to combine robot mobility and robot polyarticulation. The end user was FNAC and then METRO and the use case was « shopping automatically in a supermarket ». A major construction company heard about the mobile articulated robot more or less by accident and a new market was discovered. Roby was used for precision drilling 11000 holes in the walls of a concrete pool used for storing 53000 tons of Glycol anti-freeze at Charles de Gaulle airport. BA Systèmes had successfully stepped out of its comfort zone. The market for using such robots in the construction, maintenance and especially the deconstruction business is huge, e.g. contaminated buildings like nuclear power stations.
Project 2 ran from 2009 to 2012 and produced IRIMI a medical imagery robot used in « image-guided minimally-invasive surgery » and it looks like this
This development cost 18M€ and BA Systèmes was in partnership with GE Healthcare. For both firms it was open innovation. Since its competitor Siemens had a mobile robot in an operating theatre, GE wanted a better one. Both companies’ engineers shared a common culture and producing the spec was a 2 week effort. Then a deadline of 4 months to come up with a proof of concept demonstrator. « This, said Guy, is where the gatekeeper really has to know the company and its workers. I knew they’d complain that 4 months was too short, but I was sure they’d rise to the challenge and go for nothing less than excellence ». And so it was. « We were pleasantly surprised to discover that surgeons were real technophiles and liked working with our engineers ». The demonstrator was on time and met the 4 challenges: to be precise, repeatable, adaptable and surgeon friendly. Now BA Systèmes has a 1500m2 factory producing ITIMIs. « We are a Valeo like company for GE producing stand alone bricks that can go straight into operating theatres. »
Project #3 was briefly mentioned. It’s also in the health sector and is a mobile rehabilitation robot for helping people to walk again. I well remembered how my 86 year old mum spent weeks and weeks gaining confidence and strengthening her muscles after her 8 hour heart surgery and 7 day coma. The ergotherapists in the rehab centre were too busy with all the patients for her to have more than 3 sessions a week. I think she’d have loved wandering round with a dedicated robot a few hours a day! This again is an open innovation project with multiple partners like the CEA, the Rennes University teaching hospital, psycho sociologists and technology providers.
The 45 minutes had flown by as Guy summed it up. Open innovation at BA Systèmes had been about « sensing, seizing and transforming« . Teece again. Open Innovation had worked. The company’s diversification strategy had been successful. Turnover has doubled in 5 years. His conclusion was that it was important to be pragmatic. « The most important rule is to be able to empathise and to have the capacity to understand your partner ».
The question part was longer than the presentation! We learnt that:
– Now there was BA Systèmes, BA Services and BA Health Care
– France was ranked fourth or fifth in the world in terms of robotics research, but that non French companies were good at reaping the benefits of this research.
– BA liked taking on PhDs because of their methodology and they knew how to write (this is a vital skill for getting research funds from France and Europe)
– BA was on the EXBO of Britanny’s SIDE initiative (Structuring Innovation and Developing the Economy)
– European standards were so strict that 15% of the price of AGV’s are the security related sensors
– BA’s Open Innovation initiative had resulted in 7 patents and that the patent to employee ratio was so high that it showed up nicely on the dashboards of their multinational clients.
– In an SME regular information exchange meetings were lighter and more reliable than a cumbersome KM system
– Fast growth is not easy
– Finding money is not easy
– Mobilising the sort of war machine you need to answer public bids for tender in French hospitals is costly.
The French government’s recently unveiled 60M€ robotics investment plan was but a drop in the ocean.
Epilogue: « Why don’t you take us to see companies like these Finnish ones we’ve been visiting this week when we’re in France? » asked the ITMP13 students 4 weeks ago as we were sitting in the Koulu for our final post-Finnovation debriefing? » Because in Finland companies open up their innovation insides more easily than in France. That may be true in general, but this session showed how exciting it can be when we do manage to get a peek inside.
And now we know that French SMEs do innovate.