Strengthening strategies for protecting Intellectual Property (IP) is essential for correct implementation of Open Innovation systems. Only through suitable use of IP mechanisms can companies and research centres promote the exchange of intangibles. The future competitiveness of our business sectors depends on this exchange.

“Open Innovation” involves a company acquiring and using innovative knowledge generated by external sources to complete it own R&D and innovation processes, as well as using indirect methods aimed at the market for those research results which do not have a direct application in its business.

This way of understanding the innovation process involves a radical change from previous innovation models (linear model). In those models, R&D and innovation was carried out using only internal resources, and those innovations which were not directly applicable to productive processes were ruled out and neglected.

To a large extent, the concept of “Open Innovation” simply involves a confirmation of the practices implemented many years ago by successful companies such as IBM, Intel, Cisco, Nokia and Procter & Gamble.

In an increasingly competitive and globalised environment, these multinationals had to accept that not all good ideas were generated internally, which led to them using third-party research to maintain their leadership positions. Similarly, the company was not always the best channel to exploit those ideas.

In most cases, the change of mentality and the new way of working led to excellent results, accelerating the innovation process and improving returns on investment for R&D.

Much has been written about the needs and requirements for adopting Open Innovation models: a) coming together of companies, universities and technological centres, b) adopting more stable links with suppliers; c) creating value networks; d) disseminating collaborative tools such as Living Labs or Web 2.0 etc.

However, there is an essential aspect for effectively managing this innovation model which is often neglected or treated superficially: suitable use of IP rights.

Patents and other IP rights guarantee exclusivity in the use of an invention over a period of time. These assets take on increasing importance for both public and private institutions.

However, even today, universities and SMEs often consider them as an unnecessary expense which is difficult to recover. This may be true in some cases, but this will be due not so much to the tool itself as to the use (or lack thereof) which is made of it.

IP must always be accompanied by a suitable protection and exploitation strategy, especially if "Open Innovation" models are followed. In an environment in which interactions between innovative institutions are multiplied, IP rights are an essential base for building effective collaborative relationships and a vehicle for providing legal security to the relationships between the different research groups.

In addition, protection is especially important for small companies and institutions which collaborate with large corporations, as it guarantees that they will be able to participate in the economic returns which their research generates.

However, it is these small companies and institutions which usually lack an effective protection and exploitation strategy. Only by disseminating a culture for Intellectual Property rights among these institutions can "Open Innovation" models be suitably introduced. This is essential in an increasingly globalised economic environment.