How Sensortec generate new innovative R&D product ideas for commercialization using a five phased brainstorming approach with Jaws IP strategist input.

It was a beautiful autumnal morning when the Lely Sensortec team was driven to its mystery destination. Their mission: brainstorming.

Little did the team know about how their whole day was craftily orchestrated.

Brainstorming, Idea Creation, Think Tanking and Blue Sky Mining" are all phrases for what can be the fun part of the innovation process - plus potentially the most valuable. However, many brainstorming sessions can result in impractical ideas, ideas not actioned upon, tedium and a feeling of wasted time.

The key is to set up a brainstorming session in such a way that participants are motivated, good ideas are extracted and then plugged into the business so the most can be made of them.

This is achieved through careful planning and follow through.

Sensortec has a wonderful brief: design innovative animal management products that parent company (Lely Industries NV) can manufacture and export to the world. These products are typically high-tech and mainly sensor based.

Sensortec is based in Hamilton, New Zealand and Lely is based on the other side of the world in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. It is critical that the relevance and potential of Sensortec's innovation is clearly communicated to the distant parent company.

Sensortec's R&D director sat down with me - the company's consultant IP strategist - to design the brainstorming session, we decided on clear objectives. These were:

  • To generate new ideas for commercialisation by Lely with a focus on the Lely concept of farmer "delighters"
  • Re-design existing products to be more farmer friendly.

These two objectives tie in closely with the Sensortec brief.

Putting a brainstorming team together was easy. Sensortec's team includes mechanical and electronics engineers, physicists, chemists, dairy physiologists, animal behaviourists and software designers. They are a close knit group and work well together in a culture of innovation.

In addition to IP strategy skills, I could bring extensive knowledge of their field, but also knowledge from other fields after working with various clients over the years.

In addition to IP strategy skills, I could bring extensive knowledge of their field, but also knowledge from other fields after working with various clients over the years.

This cornucopia of skills made a rich environment from which to derive innovative and relevant product ideas.

Considerable thought went into the environment for the day. The participants needed to be kept interested and stimulated.

The chosen venue included conference rooms and a restaurant in the country with a great rural outlook and the ability to brainstorm outside, weather permitting. Fortunately we were able to work outside for part of the day and the sunshine gave the appropriate amount of white light therapy.

Plenty of juices and hot drinks were provided, plus fresh fruit in the morning (as carbs can slow down thought processes). A light lunch (no alcohol) followed so we weren't slowed down by digestion. Finally some carbs in the form of biscuits at the end of the day to enhance serotonin (feel good hormone) at wrap-up.

The participants were mainly engineers and therefore kinaesthetic learners. So toys in the form of slinkies, stress balls and squeezable plastic animals were provided along with pads and pens. It's a bit of a stretch to say their antics with the toys constituted research into materials science, but a positive atmosphere was definitely achieved.

To achieve the objectives, it was necessary to have some structure to the day without inhibiting the flow of constructive ideas.

Phase one - set-up

First, the R&D director outlined the objectives and then drew up a graph of farmer satisfaction over time which compared delighters (our objective) and expected features. The point was made, that over time delighters can become just an expected feature on everyone's product, but IP protection can extend the time in which delighters can be exclusive.

The first stage of brainstorming was to get out of an engineering mindset and into a farmer mindset with the theme " Wouldn't it be nice ...". Many suggestions were made as to what farmers would like to make their lives better, which set us up for Phase Two.

Phase two - data

Sensortec has the ability to collect through sensor designs an amazing variety of data relating to animal health, machine operation and other farm applications.

Phase Two was about looking at how the data it collects (or could collect) can be used to resolve the issues identified in Phase One. One of the satisfying outcomes was discovering how data from existing Sensortec products could be mined to develop farmer delighters.

Phase Three - products

This was a similar session to Phase Two, but looking at existing products, then potential products which could become farmer delighters.

Again a significant number of ideas came out, which dovetailed nicely with what we looked at from the data side.

Phase Four - capture & consolidation

All ideas were expounded on whiteboards and flip charts. Photos were taken along with notes. Potential IP issues (such as patentability) were raised as the ideas were developed.

The vast list of ideas was collated and presented back to the participants. Then to their consternation each person was asked to pick just one idea they thought was the best for Sensortec to focus on.

From this, a short list was produced. However, the energy was so high in terms of wanting to choose more than one project each, a second round of voting was held. This was incredibly helpful in terms of having more ticks to rank the projects by.

Phase Five - aftermath

Ideas are not enough. There has to be a way to reduce them to practise. Fortunately Lely and Sensortec have good systems to enable this.

Lely has invention disclosure forms that Sensortec staff complete so Lely can then assess the multitude of ideas and ascribe resources and priorities appropriately.

Only a few days after the brainstorming session, one of the staff members had made significant progress on the top rated project from the meeting, plus prepared an extensive write up for the invention disclosure which was sent to Lely.

The other ideas were collated. In addition to being used by the Sensortec staff to develop the ideas further before formally identifying to Lely, they were also added to the monthly idea review meeting between I have with the R&D director. One of the purposes of this regular meeting is to identify protectable concepts in what can be a crowded field.

Because of good planning and execution, this was a classic brainstorming session, with good ideas generated, lasting enthusiasm created, with reduction to practice following.

Sensortec's role as an idea generator to feed Lely so it can produce farmer delighters has been confirmed.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

James & Wells Intellectual Property, three time winner of the New Zealand Intellectual Property Laws Award and first IP firm in the world to achieve CEMARS® certification.