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Tech innovation for rent, anyone?

Business ideas are a dime a dozen, but great killer-app ideas are always hard to come by.I've often wondered how those guys sitting in research and development labs are able to churn new ideas on a daily basis, whether it involves drawing up a new mobile phone design or building the next business app.

Business ideas are a dime a dozen, but great killer-app ideas are always hard to come by.

I've often wondered how those guys sitting in research and development labs are able to churn new ideas on a daily basis, whether it involves drawing up a new mobile phone design or building the next business app.

After a while, won't the ideas run dry, especially if it's the same jaded R&D team that's responsible for creating new products and technologies day-in day-out?

It must help then if tech companies that rely on innovation and creativity as a key business strategy, have the funds to maintain huge and diverse R&D teams--as the saying goes, two heads are better than one.

Technology researchers and scientists at a symposium three years ago voiced their concerns that the U.S. was slipping behind the rest of the world in the realm of technological innovation, because less funds were being set aside for long-term research work. Leonard Kleinrock, a university professor had said bluntly: "I think we are in trouble. Years ago, people took a long-range view to research. There was high-risk research with the potential for big payoffs. That's no longer the case."

It does seem that money is the best catalyst for innovation. This week, Google said it'll fork out up to US$10 million for fresh new ideas that it thinks would have beneficial impact on people's lives.

Dubbed Project 10^100, the initiative will seek feedback from the public and a panel of judges to select up to five winning ideas, which will be unveiled in February. "These ideas can be big or small, technology-driven or brilliantly simple--but they need to have impact," Google said in a media statement.

This new post-Internet era has spawned an environment that has never been seen before, one that the search giant describes where "so many people have so much information, so many tools at their disposal [and] so many ways of making good ideas come to life".

Google's right, of course.

In fact, the Web-connected world today is actually an R&D lab…so why aren't more businesses tapping on this?

If you think about it, it's almost like outsourcing or leasing tech innovation. Tech companies can create a virtual R&D facility where there's just one research head but no full-time engineers. Instead, an outsourced R&D service provider will churn business ideas for the tech company, and only business ideas that are selected, developed and commercialized will be paid for--just like outsourced IT services.

Yes, there will be some key concerns in this R&D model that similar to those businesses once had about outsourcing--specifically, worries over technology ownership and security. This is especially pertinent in R&D work because tech companies will want to safeguard their intellectual property, and outsourcing their research could put this at risk.

But, there should be ways to work around it--for example, through stringent service level agreements and tighter IP control--just like how IT services providers eventually helped enterprises work through their concerns about outsourcing. And to further allay any initial doubts, tech companies can start by outsourcing small R&D projects and using these as a platform to iron out any teething problems or concerns.

The world's a fully-functional research facility, one that has the potential to offer ideas with strong business viability--and Asia could very well be a good place to start looking.