Innovation Airlocks

Most companies are in a Catch22 situation when it comes to innovation. Namely, large companies have the resource and reach to innovate but often lack the agility and creativity, and small companies are the exact opposite. And yet large and small companies find it increasingly difficult to talk to each other, let alone collaborate, which is a problem..

In fact many large companies won’t even have confidential conversations with external innovators at all (i.e. they won’t sign non-disclosure agreements for reasons of IP contamination, not to mention the administrative burden of managing and enforcing lots of different agreements). This stalemate doesn’t do anyone any good and we believe that both large and small companies are shooting themselves in the foot by not co-innovating more.

One simple solution is the Innovation Airlock, that we’ve developed in partnership with others through our projects with P&G, Orange and E.ON. The Airlock essentially opens up a communications channel between companies to collaborate safely without fear of contamination (for the large company) or the fear of giving away your idea for free (for the small company).

The Airlock helps to choose, develop, protect new investable propositions and increases the chance of successful idea transfer and minimises the risk of future legal issues. Above all, it builds trust between unequal open innovation partners. Here’s a video (developed at NESTA as part of a project with P&G, BDI and Oakland) which shows roughly how it works:

In our experience an Innovation Airlock typically follows 3 stages as follows:


  • Trusted agents are appointed to act on behalf of both the client and the innovator community. Trusted Agents need to be familiar with the current innovation strategy and pipeline or the large company and will have an NDA in place.
  • Trusted Agents select credible new suppliers with original and feasible answers to a specific brief detailing an unmet need.
  • The Airlock precludes passing specific information to the large company. This is important on both sides to build trust, and maximise the change of a productive exchange when they do finally meet.
  • An Airlock is a phase of a Competitive process that should seek to produce hundreds of ideas, technologies and potential partners.
  • Deliverable: Long list of up to viable concepts


  • Certain propositions are fasttracked to the client if they ready to go.
  • Trusted agents facilitate workshops that build good ideas into investment ready business propositions.
  • Work with the Trusted Agents to clarify and check feasibility of ideas.
  • Employ partners who can prototype products or services.
  • Bring in business planners and IP consultants as appropriate.
  • Proof of concept funding for prototyping and legal services as agreed in the project planning stage.
  • Deliverable: Short list of clear investment-ready propositions


  • The final phase if an Airlock is designed to ease the transfer of IP, technology or ideas.

  • Coach, rehearse and polish the final innovator presentations so that there is clear value in a realistic collaborative business model.
  • The final pitch presentations and helps the Brand make decisions to adopt.
  • The Brand then has limited time to make a commercial decision (typically 90 days), else the IP reverts back to the innovators.
  • Management is required to help successfully embed a new technology.
  • Deliverable: New innovations transferred


    That’s about it but every time we have run a process such as this, it has resulted in viable innovations being transferred from small to large companies with all parties being (genernally) very happy with the outcome. And in our view this kind of exchange could and should be happening with much greater regularity. Therefore please do share any thoughts or related experience so that we can build upon this model and make it better and more widespread. Thanks.

    Photo credit: Liquisoft


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