OI Monthly Interview Series – Nabil Sakkab – OI Pioneer

Nabil SakkabNabil Sakkab, former Senior Vice President Corporate R&D for Procter & Gamble, is one of the fathers of P&G’s Connect & Develop program. With deep expertise in Open Innovation, Sakkab talks with Evergreen’s Vandy Van Wagener about his views on OI, what he wishes he’d done differently, and his thoughts on how to best use OI in today’s fast-moving world.

Nabil, thanks for being our kick-off interviewee. Can you please start with a brief summary of your background?

Sure, I have a Phd in Chemistry from IIT with Post Doc at Texas A&M. I spent my entire career with P&G, retiring in 2007 as Sr VP Corporate R&D. Am a Board Member at Altria, Givaudan, Biowish Techniologies, Celltex, Deinove and PharNext.

You are widely credited with being one of the real pioneers in Open Innovation (OI). Can you tell us about when you got started on this path … and why?

We started on the path of OI while at P&G around 1997/98. Frankly it was heretical to think about exposing your problems to the outside world in those days. Back then, P&G was a bit like the Kremlin. However, pressure on growth was enormous as P&G growth was pretty flat in the late 90’s. So we needed  a lot more new ideas to drive the business. We grew to understand that many indicators were fpointing to a future of Connect&Develop rather than Research&Develop, where working on other people’s ideas was just as important to growth as working on our own ideas. The number of patents awarded to small companies at that time was about 30%, compared to less than 5% in the early 70′s. Graduate numbers in Math and Science were falling behind other geographies. The internet was beginning to show signs of great promise for reaching out to folks never available before to us. We even created new search engines before Google came to play so we could see what others were doing. Net, we were on the cusp of a revolution in connectivity which is the basis for creating new and fresh ideas.

As you look back on how OI has evolved, what has surprised you?

Two things have surprised me over time: 1) The speed of adopting the concept of OI; 2) The focus more on incremental rather than radical innovation, sort of outsourcing R&D work rather than fishing for radical ideas from the outside.

Are there any things that you wish you had done differently while building the OI program at P&G?

I would have done two things differently. First, I would have tracked Radical innovation from OI rather than all ideas per se. Second, I would have established a formal venture fund where we could invest into startups that had technology value to P&G in a specific area as well as financial potential for the Company as a whole. The hybrid Venture/Internal model is proving of immense value to bringing in radical ideas that are essential to growth. P&G has traditionally brought at least one or two radical ideas to market every 10 years or so, but we have not done that in the last 15 years.

What are your thoughts on where OI can be most productive today as part of a company’s overall strategy?

Our nation and our Corporate world are both facing stagnation. Growth comes from restructuring industries with new dominant designs. These can only come from better technologies, better business models and better partnerships on the supply and development sides — creating galaxies to drive radical innovation that will generate new jobs and new growth. It can’t be done by simply hoping a new technology will save the day.

Most companies who are working to incorporate OI into their strategies are smaller than P&G. How do OI models need to be adapted to work in smaller organizations?

Frankly, I think that smaller companies have an easier task to practice OI. They usually have clear growth strategies and can clearly articulate their needs. In many ways, though, it’s easier for them to work with intermediaries to help them identify, get, develop and manage collaborations. On the other hand, big companies usually resort to incrementalism and lose focus on the key strategies to drive radical growth. That said, there are masters like Apple, GE and IBM who put it all together from technology to business model to industry structure.

There is a range of OI intermediaries who have evolved to help companies today — be it consultants, software platforms, or service providers. What’s your advice on why, when and how to utilize intermediaries as part of your OI model? 

I think intermediaries are very helpful in many ways: 1) they can keep a clean room of collaboration at the start, avoiding IP contamination; 2) they can act as a clearing house for sorting ideas/solutions; 3) they can invest in broader access to crowds and ideas globally; 4) once they get to know you and your needs, they can act as scouts; 5) they will become a library of ideas to go back to as organizational memory is lost over time.