Open innovation in a large customer-centric consortium




Jan Van Hecke had been managing director of Boone International, a furniture manufacturing company located in Poperinge (Belgium), since the 1980s. He realized he had to diversify to stay competitive. As the government was investing increasingly in hospitals and health care, he recognized that the hospital furniture market would be an interesting business opportunity. Although hospitals are a protected contract market, Van Hecke succeeded in entering the market and Boone International has since evolved to hold the third largest contract in Belgium to furnish hospitals and retirement homes. Working with various hospital suppliers, Van Hecke noticed that every player in the supply chain was innovating on its own. These isolated innovation efforts were not really successful as everyone was facing the same innovation-killing rules and restrictions in this highly regulated sector.


To overcome these constraints, Van Hecke set out to establish a consortium of manufacturers, architects, user groups, universities, nurses, caregivers and patient associations. He essentially created a group of innovative and complementary suppliers to the healthcare sector with the common goal of developing one innovative project every year. The group should be a user-centric consortium where the needs of the healthcare sector are crucial as input for the annual project. Van Hecke started by looking for market leaders in each industry that supplied the healthcare sector. The consortium was launched in 2009 during a brainstorming session with 12 representatives from different organizations. During this session, the participants tried to identify problems in the market and find key elements for a possible solution. The search for the identity of the group was an organic process. At the start, the group was focused on new technological applications for the healthcare industry. Although the purpose was to be user-centered, it was still product-oriented and technology-oriented. The idea of an innovative “Patient Room” only emerged when they brought all the pieces together—which also explains the acronym “PRoF” (Patient Room of the Future). Using a central theme such as a “Patient Room” provided a practical platform for the participants to brainstorm about new applications in the healthcare industry keeping the needs of the users in the spotlight. Crucial in this process was that participants learned from one another in bringing their varied areas of expertise to the table.


The PRoF project was based on intensive, cross-disciplinary research. One of the team’s first goals was to discover what needs and questions arose concerning hospital admissions. The medical world was continually confronted with specific questions from patients, caregivers, and visitors. Patients wanted more privacy, autonomy, and freedom of choice; caregivers and visitors not only wanted to support the patient, but also required an infrastructure that allowed them to stay or sleep near the patient. Furthermore, medical staff members were coping with an increasing number of patients per day, shorter hospital stays, and the need for increased efficiency. The goal was to design an enhanced patient room by July 2010 and bring the concept to the public in six months.


Jan Van Hecke created a team spirit and open-minded atmosphere by stressing the importance of trust among the partners. He also divided the group into two consortia (see Figure  1): a limited, executive group (small consortium) and a larger group named the “think tank” or big consortium. The separation was necessary because members of the small consortium were profit-seeking companies, while healthcare participants in the large consortium were concerned with patients and elderly people while they had an aversion for an economic logic that would put profits higher than the wellbeing of the patients. The connection between the two consortia got structured in a phased way: The big consortium (the users) started with the brainwave, a structured brainstorming process leading to a number of keywords. Architects in the small consortium used these keywords to develop an initial concept room. In the next phase, the users could give feedback upon this concept room. In the last phase, members of the small consortium worked together on the realization of the room, which was then first exhibited to and discussed with the big consortium members before it was presented to the general public.


Neither of these two consortia was hierarchically organized. All partners were considered equally important for the process and had the same decision-making power. According to Van Hecke, feedback was given continually and decisions were the result of an organic process of discussing and deliberating. There was no formal organization; PRoF was even not established as a legal entity. Van Hecke assumed a leadership role by taking the lead in managing the consortium. As coordinator, he set up and prepared the meetings, ensuring that everyone was invited. He also created a strict schedule to guarantee that the project moved ahead expediently. In this way, team members witnessed progress each time they gathered. This, in turn, created a lot of enthusiasm during meetings and participants stayed committed to the project.


Van Hecke asserted that beyond these logistical tasks, the consortium was a self-organizing structure in which every member was highly motivated to meet deadlines and deliver on time. The self-organization was based on a number of implicit rules. Members of the small consortium, for instance, had to be complementary to each other to avoid competition. The 90/10 rule determined the relative size of the big and small consortia in order to guarantee the dominance of not-for-profit thinking in PRoF.  The innovation rule specified that manufacturers had to participate in the development of each new concept room. This rule guaranteed that each member of the small consortium would be fully engaged, as a manufacturer that failed to participate could be replaced by a competing company that was not previously a member. The market introduction rule stipulated that small consortium members had to introduce their innovations into the market within six months after the launch of the project. This rule guaranteed that PRoF projects would not be merely a showcase.


By the end of 2015, four concept rooms had been developed. On July 1, 2010, the Patient Room of the Future was introduced at Boone International in Poperinge (Belgium) during an impressive public relations event. Various architects and interior designers created a concept room that offered solutions for the needs of both patients and caregivers. The result was a modern patient room with a home-like feel, yet filled with the latest technical innovations (see Figure 2). After successfully releasing the Patient Room of the Future (PRoF 1.0) in 2010, the partners joined again to develop a new and more ambitious project, the Personalized Residence of the Future (PRoF 2.0), designed for aging residents. The idea emanated from realizing that the healthcare sector is increasingly confronted with a growing number of elderly, inadequately adapting healthcare facilities to growing needs, and limited financial support from governments. In July 2011, the consortium presented this second project, demonstrating how a living environment can be adapted to the particular needs of the elderly. The popularity of PRoF grew rapidly and the project development became a routinized process: PRoF 3.0: Private Care Room of the Future was launched in 2012 and PRoF 4.0: Patient Recovery Room of the Future in 2014. Since 2013, the launches were combined with annual events called themadagen (theme days) at which leading academics, architects, directors of innovative healthcare institutes and members of the consortium could explain their vision on the future of the healthcare domain.


PRoF grew very rapidly throughout its first six years. By 2011, the consortium counted more than 60 partners and in 2015 more than 300 members, of which 30 were manufacturers. In March 2014 several PRoF members presented for the first time the Private Care Room of the Future at a joint PRoF booth during the international Altenpflege trade fair in Hannover (Germany). It was a great success, and PRoF received the Innovation Award Altenpflege 2014.


PRoF’s success and the growth, however, also created some problems. The growth raised the quest for new sources of financing. So far, the small consortia members have each contributed a membership fee. PRoF intended to grow internationally, but it was not determined which internationalization path it should take. As PRoF was growing and professionalizing, adding more concept rooms would not be sufficient to keep the good spirit alive. PRoF was continually looking to stretch its reach and way of working. In 2014, for instance, the consortium introduced the first PRoF-Chair to increase its synergy with the academic world and to tap systematically into new academic insights. A stronger link with the academic world was an interesting way to gain new insights and professionalize the approach to the healthcare sector. As part of this initiative, a challenge was launched: the PRoF 2015 Award. The challenge accepted all innovations created in the healthcare domain (medical, care, aging society, etc.). A new call was launched for the PRoF 2016 Award. By organizing a challenge together with a prominent university, PRoF could reach out internationally or even globally in search of new ideas.


PRoF also fine-tuned its own brainstorming (“brainwave”) technique and packaged it as the “PRoF Think-Path”. The method was tried out beyond the healthcare sector and proven to be a viable approach for voluntary-based projects. For instance, PRoF members discovered that with a few keywords someone can assess to what extent a person is inclined to work on a voluntary basis. This was tested on the 2,200 guests at the Creativity World Forum in Belgium on November 5-6, 2014.



























Figure 1:  The structure of the PRoF consortium
































Figure 2: Four PRoF projects




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