The Open Innovation philosophy at Iren Group

Competitiveness development and R&D collaboration strategy in a big company. The IREN experience.
In the Iren Group, technological innovation is key when it comes to making strategic choices and deciding what products and services to offer.
Iren manages innovation processes via an Open Innovation model, involving all the internal and external stakeholders in developing a project or a product, through a multidisciplinary approach and using the knowledge and expertise of an ecosystem of companies, universities, research centres, innovation hubs and startups.

Innovation is crucial to improving and making business and work processes more efficient, to ensuring environmental and economic sustainability and, consequently, to facilitating the growth of the local communities where the Group operates.
The aim of the “Open-Innovation-based process” is to draw a road-map that allows to equip operational structures with new innovative products and services and knowledge tools to facilitate decision making for process changes, investment plans, entry into new markets, implementation of new technologies.

IREN, in line with the aforementioned open-innovation model, has started fruitful collaborations with
universities, research centres, innovation poles and innovative start-ups, establishing working groups and associations on specific research and development topics and promoting events, such as conferences, workshops and hackathons.

In this framework, an important example of initiatives supporting research and support startups is the
sponsorship of the latest editions of the National Innovation Award and some Regional competitions. In particular, the National Innovation Award is an important tool enabling IREN to approach Italian startups and to start fruitful collaborations.

IREN is extremely active in co-funded research projects: these projects allow innovative solutions to be tested with the contribution and discussion of international businesses. The main, currently active, innovation initiatives include research projects co-financed by third parties (EU, regions, ministries) and self-financed and internally developed innovation projects.
The projects are carried out using different tools: feasibility analysis: identification of business needs and search for the best practices used by competitors and customization; technology scouting: a method that contributes to the technological development of a company, through the identification of emerging technologies; proof of concept: development of a basic prototype and a field test, for the preliminary study and evaluation of technical and economic feasibility.

In the various phases of development of the innovative project, the following open Innovation tools can be activated: call for ideas in particular contexts or to solve specific problems both in the technological and marketing fields; agreements and partnerships with National and International research centres and universities, to intercept and exploit the excellence of innovation; collaboration and/or support with/to innovative startups in the Group’s sectors of interest: to identify trends and innovative solutions in an early stage phase, also through direct investments and other corporate venture capital tools.

In this framework, called IRENUP, is a Cleantech Venture that supports Italian start-ups with the highest potential in the cleantech sector, from clean technology to the circular economy. Its purpose is to invest, with minority stakes, in start-ups covering the areas of energy, water, waste, public utility networks and e-mobility.

IREN investment policy include two targets: Seeds, startups or spin-offs that have developed a technology or product even if in the prototype form, or which have filed a patent and Growth, startups or SMEs with innovative solutions that have already carried out a seed investment or have achieved a turnover of at least € 1 million.
In addition to financial resources, both for the startup phases of companies and for the expansion and scale-up phase, IREN provides a brand-new package of customised services that may include testing, technical support, legal advice, market testing and commercial and industrial agreements.

The complexity of a multiutility company can and should be seen as an advantage for creating opportunities through targeted synergies. The synergies described above should, in our opinion, be shared with other players in the sector, with a view to foster open innovation between utilities. It is necessary to identify suitable and effective tools for sharing innovation activities, taking into account the peculiarities and competitive advantages of each one. Only by pooling objectives and resources, the projects/studies identified can become more relevant and achieve the desired results quickly and in compliance with business needs. An example of this approach is the “IREN-HERA-SMAT-A2A” agreement which, through the definition of joint innovation and training policies and projects, has created synergies between companies, universities and research to generate excellence in applied research.

Many thanks to Nicola Bazzurro for this contribution.

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