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UKTI Robotics Mission – the case for open innovation

In June 2014 ITProPortal went out to California with the inaugural Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Mission, as organised by UK Trade & Investment and the Technology Strategy Board. We followed the journey of eight UK robotics startups through Silicon Valley.

Throughout the week our startups networked furiously, and what with robotic hands (opens in new tab), battling robot toys (opens in new tab), educational robot kits (opens in new tab), autonomous tables (opens in new tab), tiny drones (opens in new tab), ROVs (opens in new tab), insulation bots (opens in new tab), and the software to keep them all in check (opens in new tab), the UK brought a diverse offering to the Valley.

The mission was about far more than just doing deals though. Knowledge sharing was a key goal. Throughout the week we learnt about IP law, surgical robots, exoskeletons and more, all the while absorbing the unique atmosphere of the Silicon Valley business ecosystem. The term "melting pot" was bandied about on more than one occasion.

But what does this mean for the innovation process? Are companies' "wall-less" and willing to share their IP in order to tread new ground collaboratively, or is it a case of silicon suspicion? Lawrence Lee, senior director of strategy at Parc (opens in new tab), was very much of the former view. Citing Henry Chesborough's model (opens in new tab), he maintained that open innovation was alive and well, and growing, in Silicon Valley.

"It's about being able to leverage the talents and also perspectives – being able to see your space from many different angles, reflected through your partners, it's very useful and keeps you in that questioning mode that allows you to adapt to changing conditions," he said.

Read more: The TSB & UKTI Robotics Mission: What's it all about? (opens in new tab)

He refuted my suggestion that startups might be wary about sharing ideas and skills with large companies for fear of poaching:

"When I was working on my startups, it was always, 'What's Microsoft doing? Can Microsoft do what you're doing?' or 'Can Google do what you're doing?'

"Nowadays I don't hear that as much, and I think it's because startups have no fear of the big companies any more. They feel like they're too slow and they don't have the right cultures to be able to tackle the kind of problems that startups are doing now, especially here in this area.

"I think there are many people here who will never work for a big company because of the cultural issues and not having that degree of speed."

CEO and co-founder of drone producer 3D Robotics (opens in new tab), Chris Anderson, was equally upbeat about his subversive startup. His company's code development, he explained, is completely open source, allowing for a worldwide workforce connected by the web. Committed to avoiding any kind of drone weaponisation and bullishly unnerved by FAA contraventions, Anderson was entirely of the melting pot mentality. He said how it was difficult to imagine a future without open innovation, what with the global dominance of Android systems.

Read more: Robotics Mission 2014: Would you trust a robot like you would your computer? (opens in new tab)

Catering for a global market of drone hobbyists, 3D Robotics' growth figures are impressive. Founded in 2009, the company has over 180 employees in North America and more than 28,000 customers worldwide. Anderson and the team were particularly interested in the honey bee-inspired wing technology of Maple Bird (opens in new tab), one of the UK startups. Despite 3D Robotics' booming success though, Anderson could probably do with investing in some chairs, as we found out:

I also posed the innovation question to Martin Hitch, British expat and CEO of Bossa Nova Robotics (opens in new tab)? He was hesitant to confirm a fully open environment.

"I think there is a desire for open innovation between companies big and small but I don't know whether there is an actual execution of that desire," he said.

"The big companies spend a lot of time reaching out to the small companies, to startups, to academia, to make sure that they have visibility on things that are happening, but often the big companies are not necessarily well-placed to adapt them.

"You end up with this inertia in corporate structure that can't move fast enough."

Hitch also highlighted the litigious nature of Californian business, which ensures the protection of IP between firms but can be a slow process.

"It took five weeks just to agree the terms of a non-disclosure agreement," he said of his dealings with a certain Fortune 100 company.

Though difficult to map due to its intangibility, open innovation has worked its way into business strategy around the world - as Chesborough has stated on Forbes (opens in new tab). The job title "Manager of Open Innovation" now exists within hundreds of firms.

It would seem that Silicon Valley presents an environment conducive to open innovation due to the geographical and ethical proximity of firms, but I'd have to go back on my own mission to really establish just how far it goes.

The June Robotics and Autonomous Systems mission (opens in new tab) saw eight UK startups tour Silicon Valley, sharing knowledge and pitching their ideas to investors. It was organised by the Technology Strategy Board and UK Trade & Investment.