Large corporations are increasingly turning to collaboration and a startup mentality to drive fresh ideas. For Finnish environmental measurement specialist Vaisala this meant launching an open innovation challenge.
Vaisala is celebrating its 80 years of operations in a world very different from when the company was founded in 1936. During this time the weather and environmental information provider has grown into a global business supplying industry and the public sector across 150 countries. And while Vaisala started as a hardware developer, now half of its product development focus is software.
Keeping up with this fast changing world calls for constant reinnovation so for Vaisala a natural way to explore new ideas is to embrace open innovation. In November 2015, the company launched a global ‘Open Weather Data Challenge’ which encouraged students, meteorologists and software developers around the world to look for novel, impactful and feasible solutions which leverage open weather data.
“A lot of open weather data globally comes from our devices but we do not own the data, our customers do,” says Ilkka Mannonen, Head of Offering and CTO, Weather Business at Vaisala. “We wanted to see how open weather data is utilised around the world, what kind of ideas there are and if there could be something useful to us.”
Furthermore Vaisala saw the competition as an opportunity strengthen its employer image amongst software developers.
“People know us from weather measurement equipment but we wanted to raise our profile among developers and startups,” Mannonen explains. “This was also a way to celebrate our 80th anniversary, which is why we wanted the competition to have a very international scope.”
To attract international and startup minded audiences Vaisala chose to launch its challenge at Slush, Northern Europe’s biggest startup event which is organised in Helsinki every November. Helsinki Business Hub, regional development agency, also helped the company in planning and executing the launch.
“The launch at Slush was a new experience for us so it was very beneficial to get support from an organisation with prior experience and wide networks,” says Mannonen.
In the end Vaisala received almost 30 submissions from all over the world, particularly Finland and the US. Vaisala narrowed the ideas down to a top three and in April chose New York based team RainMiner as the winner. Its concept is a rainwater harvesting tool which aims to help shift centralised water distribution systems to more localised networks therefore reducing water disruption locally.
“RainMiner is a forward-looking concept and addresses a very important and critical societal issue, water availability,” explains Mannonen. “We are not planning deeper cooperation at the moment, but rainwater harvesting is an important future topic.”
The RainMiner team of two researchers received €20,000 in prize money and a visit to Vaisala’s headquarters and R&D unit in Finland.
Open collaboration creates innovation
While the innovation challenge did not directly led to new commercial projects, Vaisala feels it was a clear success in raising the company’s profile and exploring new ideas.
“We have gotten seeds for various ideas of which you might hear more in the future,” Mannonen hints. “Time has past for thinking that you can do everything internally. At Vaisala this is also represented in our deep cooperation with our customers, universities and startups.”
Mannonen believes all companies should embrace open collaboration and innovation. The open data challenge has helped to inspire new kinds of internal initiatives at Vaisala and development work is ongoing. The company is currently looking into the potential of organising internal and external hackathon events.
“The most efficient way to [foster new ideas] is through a hackathon or a similar focused event, which are practically product development through open innovation. But I would not rule out another global competition either,” Mannonen says. “Open collaboration has a central role in finding new and refining existing innovation.”
Picture: Vaisala’s ‘Open Weather Data Challenge’ was launched at the Slush startup conference in Helsinki.