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Breaking boundaries


Breaking boundaries without ‘breaking bad’: Co-creation for extreme innovation

Published 25 October 2023 in Innovation • 8 min read

Does the winner really take it all? By combining expertise from distinct domains, organizations can unlock groundbreaking solutions that address climate change and environmental issues.   

BASF, the world’s largest chemicals group, achieved a groundbreaking innovation through a simple yet powerful gesture – a trusted handshake and an inclusive approach to selecting partners.  

The German company attributes its rapid development of biodegradable UV filters for sunscreens to successful collaborative efforts. Traditional sunscreens contain harmful chemicals that contribute to coral reef damage when people swim near them. The UV filters in conventional sunscreens consist of titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide – two substances that are neither organic nor biodegradable.  

So, to address this issue, BASF launched a collaborative university competition. Teaming up with research teams from seven different universities, including Spain’s University of La Rioja, a region renowned for its wine-producing legacy, BASF co-created a material prioritizing the well-being of the oceans. 

The La Rioja team drew inspiration from their expertise in studying grape skins, formulating a substance that not only absorbs harmful UV rays but also converts them into glucose, leaving no harmful residue in the water, safeguarding the oceans and our health.  

The sunscreen industry has been changed by the fruits of their labor, with many leading sunscreen brands worldwide now incorporating this component. Nonetheless, the journey to success was not without its obstacles. 

Legal procedures for drafting collaboration agreements can be notoriously time-consuming, often taking months to finalize. For BASF, however, the urgency of marine pollution left no room for delays. As tourism increases in tropical reef areas, the impact of sunscreens could rise significantly. So, the company forged ahead with its academic partners, bypassing the traditional safety net of formal contracts. The risk paid off, leading to an innovation that is not only commercially viable but also environmentally responsible.   

By bringing together eight university teams worldwide, Unilever achieved significant energy savings in a surprising product category: ice cream.

“The main reason that we got the required results on time was that we started the project based on a trusted handshake,” says Stefan Dreher, BASF’s Senior Vice-President for Digitalization of Research and Development. “It took legal more than three months to make a collaboration agreement. Waiting that long was not an option, so we broke some rules and started without an agreement in place.” 

BASF’s project underscores the power of trust, risk-taking, and collective action in unlocking innovation for sustainability. At a time when the urgency to combat climate change and environmental problems is paramount, the need for innovative and sustainable solutions has never been greater.  

Historically, major Western corporations predominantly engaged in incremental innovation within their closed ecosystems. Driven by a quest for competitive advantage, they fiercely guarded their discoveries, leading to monopolistic practices that only offered limited benefits to the planet.  

However, in recent times, a promising shift has emerged: an increasing number of large corporations recognize the need for collaboration. They’re forming partnerships with start-ups and academic institutions to foster a vibrant ecosystem of ideas, expertise, and resources. In these environments, the winner does not take all.  

Unilever, the consumer goods giant, exemplified this shift by achieving significant energy savings in a surprising product category: ice cream. Typically, these products are stored in freezers at -18°C temperatures, leading to high energy consumption. Emissions from retail ice cream freezers contribute 10% to Unilever’s carbon footprint in its value chain. To find a greener alternative, Unilever brought together eight university teams worldwide. Their solution “warmed up” Unilever’s last mile freezer cabinets to -12°C in two pilots, resulting in large energy savings.  

Once you have issued your warning order, you can use the time to reflect and assess the challenge ahead of the meeting. It helps to assemble your thoughts under the following headings:  

  • What are your team’s goals?  
  • What are the constraints on your actions, such as timings/resources? 
  • Who needs to be involved at this stage? 
  • What are the next three steps that you need to agree upon? 

By jotting some notes under these headings on a card, you will have the basis on which to brief the assembled team calmly, clearly, and with confidence.  

Once the briefing is delivered, you can then stand back and monitor the discussion, listening out for good ideas but also just checking for signs of stress amongst the group. This might require intervention, but only when helpful or unavoidable.  


A final tip from military leaders is the importance of rehearsal. You may have heard of the six ‘Ps’: Prior Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. If you lead a team that might have to respond to an unexpected challenge or situation, it can be helpful to run your team, perhaps once a month, through an imaginary scenario to put everyone through their paces and identify weaknesses.  

In a busy city street there is a road with a long crack depicting the effects of an earthquake The background appears blurry
“Achieving success in co-creation demands breaking some conventional rules and red tape, but it must be done thoughtfully to avoid negative consequences, or “breaking bad”.”

The example underlines how co-creation can achieve genuine progress and accelerate disruptive innovation. While collaboration involves two parties working together, co-creation entails the simultaneous involvement of at least three parties in the concurrent pursuit of a shared mission, generating significant synergies. This achieves more in less time, which is critical given the urgency to find climate solutions.  

When industry expertise converges with academic curiosity, the synergy is nothing short of remarkable. However, academic collaboration often faces organizational rigidity. The process often involves navigating through the university’s technology transfer office, which can be marred by lengthy discussions over intellectual property (IP) ownership and non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). To overcome these obstacles, working directly with university researchers often proves to be a more efficient and agile approach.  

Additionally, in the quest to understand and inspire collaborative innovation, my consulting organization, iKNOW-WHO, conducted a study. Through interviews and reflection with executives, we sought insights into the mindsets, leadership skills, and organizational abilities necessary for successful co-creation. Calculated risk-taking, learning from failures, leading by example, encouraging breaking some boundaries, and celebrating success together emerged as essential attributes. 

Moreover, achieving success in co-creation demands breaking some conventional rules and red tape, as the BASF example illustrates, but it must be done thoughtfully to avoid negative consequences, or “breaking bad”.  

Another insight is that promoting inclusive co-creation is crucial. Large multinational corporations have tended to rely heavily on their internal resources and expertise. However, BASF and Unilever demonstrate that they remain open to collaborating with university teams from new geographic areas and institutions outside their usual networks. For instance, BASF collaborated with a team unfamiliar with UV filters but experts in grapes and winemaking. Similarly, Unilever partnered with a team that hadn’t worked on ice cream but specialized in unique cement applications in outer space.  

Additionally, companies should be open to bridging knowledge gaps. Executives involved in collaborative competitions to tackle extreme innovation challenges have the option to withhold intellectual property (IP). However, the more open these executives are, the faster critical knowledge gaps can be closed. 

It’s also important to embrace interdependence. The increasing complexity of challenges in health, emissions, energy consumption, and material scarcity demands a broader range of scientific expertise to find solutions. Maintaining all these disciplines in-house is costly and impractical. Thus, executives must rely on external expertise to succeed.  

Lastly, companies should shift from a “winner takes it all” to a “winners make it all” mindset. In-house IP legal teams should transition from a singular winner paradigm to a collective success approach, where all contributors benefit from co-created breakthroughs. Deserving academic teams should have the opportunity to publish results from co-created findings and share in licensing revenues stemming from patent-protected breakthroughs. 

Such insights gathered can serve as a valuable resource, guiding businesses towards the path of co-creation, ultimately paving the way for a more sustainable future. 

Best practice for companies that want to co-create:

Take calculated risks and push the conventional barriers.
Dare even to break some conventional boundaries – without “breaking bad”.
Include and embrace novel partners who are not part of your conventional network to reap the benefits of diversity.
Dare to open up and contribute with your ideas – even if you are not the “most recognized authority” in the specific area of co-creation.
Recognize that “the winner takes it all” mindset is music from the past. The melody of the future could be the “winners make it all”. This is particularly important in areas of sustainability – because the planet cannot wait.
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Sigvald Harryson

Sigvald Harryson

Founder and CEO of iKNOW-WHO

Sigvald Harryson is the Founder of iKNOW-WHO and INNOVENTUM. His first PhD was on Japanese R&D Management and his second one on Co-Creation of Breakthrough Innovation. After 9 years with BCG and Arthur D. Little, Sigvald served as Director of International Partnerships at Lund University, Associate Professor of Ecopreneurship at Copenhagen Business School and Professor of Disruptive Innovation at HULT Business School in San Francisco. Sigvald now focuses his time as CEO of iKNOW-WHO and Chairman of INNOVENTUM while freely contributing to executive education in Disruptive Innovation & Sustainability at great business schools.


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