Innovation Tools - (Digital) tools that will increase the innovation potential of your team or company. In this article Dr Rowan Gilmore shares lessons from the AIC’s Innovation Coaching program which was first introduced to help Queensland (Australia) SMEs in 2009. Nine years ago, when the Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC) was first created, we were quickly forced to ask ourselves how we could add value to our own market – those entrepreneurs, researchers, or businesses seeking to commercialise their ideas.
For us, as a not-for-profit company, success of our own products and services has been measured through various key performance indicators, such as the number of our customers, our customers’ success, and degree of our product uptake.
SME’s, or small to medium enterprises, are the lifeblood of almost every economy, and usually contribute well over half the total of all business revenues within national gross domestic product (GDP). Many innovation intermediaries focus on helping to establish and accelerate the growth of start-up companies. However, not all SMEs are equally well adapted to innovation, and it is important to first segment the SME population to ensure that they are best able to benefit from assistance. Firms in the middle however are in the ‘sweet spot’, where the goal should be to transform from rising stars into real stars. The AIC’s Innovation Coaching program was first introduced to help Queensland (Australia) SMEs in 2009.
Generally, we find that open innovation – involving shared risk and shared collaboration to innovate – is a good avenue for rising star SMEs to develop their product or service. The value chain, first popularized by Michael Porter in 1985, refers to a network of activities, connected by linkages that are performed by an organization to design, produce, market, deliver and support its products and services. Value chains are a useful model to describe how a product or service is developed and ultimately utilized.
For the first time in 2009, the AIC developed its TechClinic process to restore, reorganize, or assemble value chains in existing or emerging industry sectors through a structured, facilitated process. Value chains have long been overlooked by innovation advocates, who usually focus only on the “firm”, rather than on where and how the firm fits within a more extended value chain. The AIC’s Innovation Coaching program assists businesses with an annual turnover of between $1M and $100M to solve problems, identify new opportunities and improve their profitability. One on one intensive coaching and mentoring – the Innovation Coach works with a small number of businesses at a time, investing considerable time in each business. Focused on innovation – the coaching process is focused on achieving innovation for the business providing new and innovative ways to solve business problems, enabling competitive advantage.
Builds innovation expertise – the Innovation Coach can provide and help instil extensive innovation expertise into the business, backed up by the Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC), a leading provider of innovation and commercialisation services. National network –the Innovation Coach can tap into a national network of industry, research organisations and government agencies to assist the client.
Market research – the Innovation Coach can access business intelligence capabilities of the AIC, to provide new insights into market opportunities. Tools to innovate – the Innovation Coach provides practical tools and skills for business to continue to innovate after the Innovation Coaching period.

Innovation community – businesses that participate in innovation coaching become part of the wider innovation community, accessing AIC knowledge and networks. The AIC’s Innovation Coaching program assisted Placid Pools, a business which specialises in swimming pool design and construction.
The company sought to revolutionise the pool industry by introducing chemical free fresh water pool solutions to the market via their innovative Eco Splash System, a sustainable water-purification system developed specifically for tropical pools.  It relies on natural biofilm cultivation, natural media, specific flow-rates and aquatic plants to produce crystal-clean pure water. He is a graduate from the University of Queensland, and continues to have strong links with it, holding adjunct professorships in both the School of Business and the School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering. Be sure to include not only your duties and responsibilities for each position, but also your accomplishments.
The program works with SMEs in a number of industry sectors, helping company management to “think outside the box” to grow their business or develop new products and services. It took time to understand the real market needs, and to develop and commercialise our own products and services. However, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps our success can best be measured by the degree to which other governments and innovation groups are now offering the services that we first pioneered and innovated ourselves.
However, we believe there are several benefits in working to help existing SMEs to (re)innovate. The graph below shows a general SME population, plotted against some measure of innovation intensity, such as number of R&D staff or spend, or new product development investment. Instead, they frequently need improved “zero-level” capabilities, and should focus on achieving efficiencies in their HR, finance, and customer management systems to survive. They typically already know how to innovate on their own, and normally won’t require the services of an innovation intermediary.
As corporations have become less vertically integrated, adopted open innovation, and embraced globalization, most value chains today cross organizational boundaries and consist of many firms, loosely linked but interdependent on each other. When a value chain lacks transparency, or is fragmented, or perhaps does not yet exist (for instance, in a new emerging industry sector), the commercialisation of new ideas can stall and innovation can be stifled because small firms find themselves unable to offer fully integrated products, or unable to access markets on their own. Through the TechClinic process, successful outcomes have been achieved for companies in industries as diverse as energy, mining, tourism, and agriculture. Innovation results in the development of new products and services, enabling it to access new markets and increase revenues. Rowan Gilmore was the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Institute for Commercialisation (AIC) from May 2003 to June 2011, where he was responsible for leading the organisation in its mission to help businesses, research organisations and governments accelerate the commercialisation of their know-how and technology. These include our flagship TechFast program, which is a “demand-pull” commercialisation service that helps SMEs to establish collaborative relationships with research organisations or others in an open innovation model, and our TechClinics, which help businesses to enter or even establish new value chains to take products to market in collaboration with others. But a good proportion keep doing the same thing over and over, failing to innovate and eventually losing to competition.
Firstly, SMEs already have an ability to operate, rather than having to establish capacity from scratch.
Numerous surveys over the past decade have shown that firms that innovate consistently have higher performance in profitability, market share or revenue than those that don’t, and the graph shows this general trend.

Manufacturers in this segment can benefit from introduction of “lean” manufacturing techniques and other process improvements – so called “new to the firm” innovation. Only firms with sufficient commitment and absorptive capacity will be able to engage in open innovation or develop new products and services to grow their market share. In addition, the AIC refers companies to other service providers in its wider partner network, where other specialist skills are required. Ultimately, the secret of commercialisation is for a firm to know precisely where its product or service fits in the value chain, and how it adds value.
Firms looking to become the innovation stars should look outside their own borders, to more closely collaborate with partners to complement the resources and activities needed to take a product to market. He is Chairman of EM Clarity Pty Ltd, Chairman of the ARC Centre of Excellence in Engineered Quantum Systems, and Director of EM Solutions Pty Ltd. The job of our Innovation Coaches is to help find and use outside expertise to help facilitate the innovation process. Secondly, SMEs know their market, and will have established distribution channels, enabling them to focus on innovating the product or service itself, rather than having to establish entirely new capabilities. Frequently however these attempts will be insufficient, and many in this population will fail. The absorptive capacity of a firm is a measure of its ability to adopt and adapt intellectual property and know-how for its advantage, and is a function of the skills of its staff, its technological literacy, its ability to undertake research and development of its own, and of course its leadership. If innovation is all about “serendipitous connections”, then TechClinics can help to engineer these. Partners can provide complementary technological capability, or undertake research and development, or simply provide new channels to market segments beyond reach. Thirdly, SMEs can frequently fund themselves organically rather than rely on venture capital, and tunnel through the “valley of death” using internal funds. In fact, fast failure should even be encouraged to minimise losses to their owners, and prevent the “walking dead” that impose a drag on the overall economy.
Collaboration requires absorptive capacity, a preparedness to learn and adapt, and to strategically share with others.
Finally, SME’s are sticky, and more likely to remain headquartered in their existing region, rather than be forced to relocate – often offshore – because of the whim of a venture capitalist seeking a profitable exit. Other firms in this category should become educated in how to innovate and commercialise their products, perhaps benefitting from entrepreneurial-based courses that improve marketing, operations, and better utilisation and capture of their intellectual property.
Programs like Innovation Coaching can help to facilitate open innovation, while TechClinics can help a firm to assemble or enter the value chains necessary to deliver new solutions to markets that need them.

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