Case studies on open innovation from academic projects

CERN is an organisation with a major track record in terms of openness, going back to the very start. The declaration from the 1953 CERN Convention states: “the results of its experimental and theoretical work shall be (…) made generally available”. Well known is the history of the world wide web and the role of Sir Tim Berners-Lee played, who was working at CERN at that time.

Last week I attended and presented at a workshop on ‘open source software with TT Perspective’, organised by the Technology Transfer Network at CERN. Given their long history of developing and using open source software, the TT network was interested in getting to know more about issues related to the commercial exploitation of open source software.

I presented two case studies of projects that originated from academia and managed to generate a lot of interest from the commercial sector. The first one is Apache Wookie (Incubating), a project OSS Watch is working closely with. Wookie started off as part of the TENCompetence project but the people at Bolton University realised that there was value in the widget server they developed as a separate project. By bringing the project to a foundation and working on a W3C standard it attracted the attention of many new potential partners, both from the academic and the commercial sector. Some of these have resulted in collaboration both on the project itself and in new collaborations with Europe.

The other example I presented was TexGen. By open sourcing this modelling tool, the university of Nottingham found many new collaborators. Commercial partners, for example from the aviation industry, were interested in this tool and in the expertise that Nottingham had developed. The open source project turned out to be a very good marketing tool and as a result new investments were made.

These examples show how open source software projects are an excellent example of bringing open innovation into practice. Cross-collaboration between the academic and commercial sector can thrive in these projects and the examples mentioned show that there is not a single best way of achieving this. Wookie and TexGen are quite different projects: Wookie is centred around widgets, which is a very generally applicable technology, and the project carries a permissive licence. TexGen on the other hand is operating in the niche market of modelling the geometry of textile structures and their licence is GPLv2. But in both cases the commercial sector was interested and willing to invest in the project. Being open and making their work generally available as an open source project was a key factor. This involves much more than just choosing a licence and dumping your code; by using the open development methodology projects can become a true platform for open innovation.