October 29, 2021
Written by
Alex Short

Open Innovation with suppliers: focus on your wants

One of the keys to running a successful open innovation program with your suppliers is to define the problem/opportunity rather than focusing on the solution. In this post I will look into the importance of problem/opportunity definition and will highlight a couple of examples from Mars and Unilever.

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Published December 2014.

In our recent discussions with suppliers on the subject of big corporations, we have been exploring the way that corporates approach open innovation with suppliers. One of the big findings from these sessions was that the innovation teams and/or procurement teams will often just ask for innovation. They frequently do not define what innovation means to their business and more specifically do not highlight what type of innovation they want from suppliers. It is also a worry that innovation is often one of the elements of the supplier performance scorecard – I am not sure what is being measured here?

We also found that when companies are running an open innovation program with their suppliers, their problem/opportunity definition is often not detailed enough and sometimes they spend more time defining the solution. It is slightly counter intuitive when you are asking for new solutions to a current problem or opportunity.

Many of the leading companies approach open innovation with suppliers by using the Want/Find/Get/Manage (WFGM) approach developed by Dr. Gene Slowinski of the Alliance Management Group (AMG).

Michael Dalton from the Guide Innovation Group has previously explained the importance of the Want stage:

Do you have a clear understanding of what you want and need from the alliance? Open innovation alliances require clarity on what unmet customer need you are trying to solve, what value that creates and how much of that value you and the partner might be able to share. If you don’t have an effective process for finding and evaluating unmet customer needs, spend your time and resources shoring up that weakness instead.

So, defining your wants is the all important start to the process of running a successful open innovation program with your suppliers. Rather than leaving scratching your head over what is a good format for sharing your Wants with suppliers, I thought I would leave you with two examples from Mars and Unilever.

Mars example of an open innovation requirement:

All information taken directly from the Innovate with Mars website.


Novel opening, closing, sharing, and portioning technologies for enhanced consumer packaging interaction


Mars are seeking innovative opening and re-closure concepts to enhance consumer interaction with their packaging. The solution concept could be for 1 piece products for individual consumption, multi piece products or portionable products. Solutions of interest would enable novel repeated opening and closing of the packaging/easy re-use or be a novel way to enable portioning of the product for periodic consumption/sharing. This need applies to a variety of different packaging types: flexibles, cartons, rigid plastics and other wrapping formats.


Confectionery is often shared or only partly consumed and put away for later. Of particular interest is the consumer interaction with the packaging — handling, opening, closing, the process of sharing the product or being able to consume portions of it while leaving the unconsumed remainder protected.

Your proposed solution is especially of interest to us if it:

  1. Makes the package easier for a consumer to open, close or put away for later.
  2. Enables the consumer to portion the product.
  3. Protects the product with a single layer of packaging.
  4. Adds new functionality to an existing packaging format. For example, clean easy opening over flexible wrap.
  5. Maintains product integrity and quality to the same standards as the originally unopened package even after opening.

Your proposed solution may apply to one type of packaging or to more than one. As with any mass-produced product, cost is an important factor.


  • Compatible with food contact.
  • Packaging resistant to air, moisture, and spoilage.
  • Solution providers should have the legal rights needed to offer the technology to Mars including the legal right to transfer any necessary intellectual property.
  • Solution providers should have a position on the freedom to operate for Mars’ use of the technology.

Desired Outcome of the Solution: (What we are looking for):

We would like to discover options for novel interaction between consumer and packaging. Packaging that allows consumers new options — consuming portions of the product, sharing portions of the product, and saving the unused portion of the product while protecting it from air, moisture, oxidation, and the other effects of exposure.

Possible approaches:

  • Opening and closing technologies added to or built into the packaging.
  • One-way valve technologies to remove air and keep product fresher.
  • Novel ‘hand-friendly’, ‘pocket-friendly’, ‘car-friendly’, ‘purse-friendly’ packaging options for whenever carrying or packing as an on the go snack.
  • Ways to separate portions of the product so that some of it can be shared or consumed while the remainder stays sealed.
  • Clean tearing technologies.
  • Sealing innovations such as peelable and re-sealable openings (without leaving a sticky residue).

What we are not looking for:

Solutions using glass or tin (metallic and transparent attributes are acceptable).

Field of Use and Intended Application:

Consumer food products

Timeframe for commercialization:

2 – 5 years

Unilever example of an open innovation requirement:

All information taken from the Collaborating with Unilever section of their website.

Cleaning up fat:

When it comes to washing clothes and cleaning surfaces, some fatty deposits are tough to remove. We want to make it easier to get surfaces spotless, in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.

The challenge:

Certain types of soils on fabrics and hard surfaces are difficult to clean because they contain waxy, solid and polymerised fat. In the case of laundry, it’s the soil type that, upon aging, leaves a yellow stain on the fabric (eg on collar line). We want to find materials / ingredients / concoctions / solutions that can remove such types of fatty deposits in an efficient, odourless and environmentally friendly way. It is important that the solution is capable of removing fatty deposits more efficiently than can be achieved today by currently available products in the market.

What we are looking for:

The solution could be incorporated as an ingredient in the detergent formulation or be a standalone solution, eg a pre-treatment applied directly to the fabric or hard surface. It must address either laundry or hard surface, preferably both, and should be accompanied by an explanation of the mechanism(s) of operation.

Possible solution areas:

  • highly alkaline solutions pH 11, which do not cause damage to fabrics, or hard surfaces
  • fatty acid esters capable of solubilising sebum and selected solid fats
  • non-ionic surfactants with small / medium alkyl chain length (up to C 8)

Constraints and requirements:

  • be safe for use
  • compatible with detergents, cleaning ingredients and packaging material
  • does not cause damage to fabrics / substrates
  • has no adverse environmental impact

Two fantastic case studies!

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