Implementing Open Innovation: Insights from Ariana Smetana of AccelIQ Digital

Open innovation is a core strategy for transformative growth amongst a growing number of enterprise companies around the world. The days of boardrooms and R&D departments keeping innovation under lock and key are waning, as companies are increasingly preferring a more collaborative approach with startups and other external parties.

AccelIQ Digital is a global consultancy based in Houston, Texas, with a mission to help enterprise businesses unlock the benefits of this outward-looking, collaborative approach to innovation. With a network that spans across the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, the company helps its clients to grow by facilitating partnerships across its global startup ecosystem.

We caught up with the founder and CEO of AccelIQ Digital, Ariana Smetana, to find out more about the business and how it helps companies to implement open innovation initiatives.

Ariana Smetana is a keen advocate of open-source innovation
Ariana Smetana, founder and CEO of AccelIQ Digital

Could you tell us about your career journey and how you became involved in innovation?

My career journey is rather unconventional,  as I built my career by reinventing myself and transforming instead of remaining in the steady career climb in a corporate fold. Being an economist by training, I initially followed that path into financial and data analytics management roles within PWC, Continental Airline, and then with Shell USA, a major global energy company.

After that, I decided to chart a different course by exploring my other interests and developing my creative side, which I expressed by founding an interior design and workspace strategy firm in 2010.  I returned to school, got interior design training, and led my firm for over a decade, often working with fast-growing tech startups and their office requirements.

That exposure to the tech world drew my interest in 2018 to look at how the AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) industry is affected by digital automation and hardware solutions like AR/VR, which can help process vast amounts of 2D/3D data and improve project visualization capabilities. Also, I have always had a knack for assessing market trends and seeing which solutions will stick to deliver a transformative effect in moving companies forward.

And now you head up AccelIQ Digital… what led you to the decision to set it up?

With my curiosity and perpetual learner mindset, I reinvented and innovated my career once again. This time, I completed an excellent Certification Program in Digital Transformation 2020-21 at Kellogg School of Management. The 15-month virtual and in-person immersive course was a perfect mix where business and technological innovation intersected and positioned me to work with organizations looking for data and automation strategies.

In working with companies, I saw the need to look at business problems through the lens of applying new advanced tools to move companies forward where the trends were heading. I identified that the old business approach of working with outdated data workflows from department to department was cumbersome, siloed, and prone to manual errors.

With many emerging technologies, applications of intelligent automation, machine learning/AI, blockchain, and immersive virtual AR/VR tools, there are better ways to address pressing communication and collaboration gaps between internal and external users. With my experience in data analytics and creative problem solving, I understood the vast potential in digitization of workflows and process automation with AI/ML applications, which led me to launch Accel IQ Digital.

How does AccelIQ work with its clients?

As global technology innovation advisors, we are non-traditional consultants who combine our C-level operational experience and technology founders’ know-how for on-demand digital innovation management. We tackle pressing business problems or opportunities by developing intelligent data strategies and advanced digital solutions. Our advisors are present in the USA, Brazilian, and Asian regions.  

We focus on closing the gap in access and tech deployment between corporations that need to accelerate digital innovation and cutting-edge technology innovators and startups.

Our approach is based on partnering with organizations to identify critical areas for business improvement and guiding them toward systematically positioning for innovation with advanced digital solutions to drive efficiencies and create growth value.      

At AccelIQ.Digital, we enable beneficial collaborations by:

Facilitating Targeted Corporate Challenges: we help evaluate root causes of specific business or industrial challenges and then curate relevant technology-based solutions. With our innovation management partner, we also enable continuous and cross-department sourcing of ideas and internal solutions development.  

Curated Deployment: we guide companies in assessing the most relevant technology options and choosing the most effective ones for the specific corporate context.

Partnerships with Technology Developers and Startups: we facilitate access to technical expertise, solutions, and innovations from leading technology developers and startups. These collaborative partnerships allow us to test in an organized way the latest advancements in technology and tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of startups.

Let’s talk about open innovation. There are a few different definitions of open innovation out there, could you tell us how you see it at AccelIQ?

Open innovation is our passion; as founders ourselves, we love to collaborate with leading technology developers and startups to access their expertise, solutions, and innovations. These collaborative partnerships allow us to facilitate deploying cutting-edge solutions with corporations to accelerate digital transformation in agile ways.

With increased demands on specific technology knowledge and skills needed to develop and deploy the latest digital capabilities, those skills often reside outside traditional companies. Thus, open innovation is a faster way for traditional companies to innovate, so we offer to scout and facilitate productive engagements deploying that process.

Businesses today face greater market challenges that are coming faster than ever before, requiring rapid responses and exploration of possible solutions.  

We help corporations to establish new capabilities and test emerging technologies in a more agile way by leveraging the skills, knowledge, and expertise of external organizations or individuals that might not be present internally.

I like referencing a researcher and UC Berkley professor, Henry Chesbrough, one of the pioneering thinkers in this domain, who conducted in 2013 the first large sample survey of open innovation adoption among large firms in both Europe and the US with annual sales in excess of $250m:  

  • 78% of firms in the sample report practiced open innovation 
  • No firms in the sample report had abandoned their open innovation practice 
  • 71% reported that top management support for open innovation was increasing in their firm 

The overall outcomes can be captured as:

Accelerated Time-to-Market: Reduce the development cycle by tapping into ready-made solutions or collaborating to co-create solutions.

Risk Reduction: Sharing the risks associated with innovation, especially in areas outside the firm’s core expertise.

Cost Savings: Potentially reduce R&D costs by leveraging external expertise and solutions.

Access to Diverse Skill Sets: Tap into a wider pool of talent, expertise, and perspectives.

Market Expansion: Collaborations can offer entry into new markets or customer segments.

Staying Competitive: Leveraging external innovations can help firms remain at the cutting edge and adapt to shifts in the market.

What’s the most important piece of advice you’d give to companies starting to think about implementing an open innovation program for the first time?

Here are what companies need to evaluate and prepare for prior to diving into open innovation:

Culture & Mindset: Instilling a culture that celebrates external collaboration and views it not as a threat but as an opportunity is pivotal. Traditional organizations might feel protective of their internal knowledge and processes. Hence, driving a cultural shift is foundational.

Define Objectives: Know why you’re embracing open innovation. Is it to reduce R&D costs, accelerate product development, tap into new markets, or all of the above? A clear vision will guide the strategy.

Manage Intellectual Property (IP): One of the biggest concerns surrounding open innovation is the potential risk to intellectual property. Be proactive in defining IP terms, rights, and agreements with external partners. Consulting with legal experts is often a smart move.

Communication is Key: Clear, consistent communication reduces misunderstandings and establishes trust. Ensure both internal teams and external partners are aligned regarding goals, roles, and expectations.

Start Small: Before embarking on major collaborations or initiatives, pilot the open innovation process on a smaller scale to understand the dynamics, challenges, and benefits. This approach can help in refining strategies as you scale up.

There are a few avenues for engaging in open innovation: 

1. Collaborative Research Partnerships: Forming alliances with universities, research institutions, or other companies to co-develop products or technologies.

2. Licensing: Acquiring or providing licenses for technologies, patents, or intellectual property.

3. Innovation Labs/Incubation: Establishing dedicated units or spaces for nurturing innovative startups or projects.

4. Hackathons: Organizing events where external developers, designers, and innovators come together to solve specific challenges.

5. Acquisitions and Investments: Acquiring or investing in startups or companies with promising technologies or products.

6. Joint Ventures: Forming new entities to pursue specific markets or technologies in collaboration with other companies.

Open innovation requires a shift in mindset from traditional business practices. It calls for greater transparency, willingness to collaborate, and an understanding that not all good ideas come from within the organization. Proper governance, IP management, and mutual trust are critical for successfully implementing open innovation strategies.

What do you think are the most common mistakes companies make when it comes to innovation in general?

A common mistake we see is that companies are reluctant, especially in the AEC industry, to do things differently since the established processes have worked for them for many years. However, this is the common pitfall of the ‘status quo’ that gives a false sense of security while progressive or more unconventional competitors move the ball forward. Also, what keeps companies from innovating successfully is a mix of needing to figure out where to start, which new solutions to apply, and where it makes sense to create a quick win, and then being prepared for testing and experimenting, before scaling.

To finish up…do you have any innovation heroes? Any historical figure or modern day innovator who you particularly admire, and why?  

Nikola Tesla – he came to the USA from the same geographical area of my origin – Croatia. His innovations were unparalleled feats in his time, and some ideas are even unrealized today.

Another, more contemporary, fellow tech innovator Mate Rimac – is a Croatian innovator, entrepreneur, and founder of the Croatian electric sports car company Rimac Automobili and Greyp Bikes, a high-tech eBike and eBike technology company. During even his high-school years, Rimac won local, national and international competitions for electronics and innovation.

Join us on 28 September when we will be hosting a webinar session with Ariana that explores how idea management can help businesses to capitalize on opportunities presented by emerging technologies. You can register here.

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