Sherwin-Williams on Using Open Innovation to Create Breakthroughs

By Molly K. McLaughlin |  August 8, 2016

Victoria Scarborough says that after nearly a decade of overseeing the open innovation initiative at $11 billion Sherwin-Williams, one thing has become very clear: you can waste a lot of time “if you don’t have a clear focus on specific solving business needs,” she says, “and if you don’t have the needs identified and scoped out before you start scouting for technologies and partners.”

Sherwin-Williams, the Cleveland-based maker of paints and coatings, is also the largest operator of paint retail stores in the Americas, with over 4,100 locations. (In March, the company announced its intention to buy rival Valspar.) Scarborough, the Program Director for Sherwin-Williams’ seven-person Global External Innovation Team, defines her team’s mission as identifying outside “technology that would move the innovation needle.” That has involved academic research partnerships, and collaborations with outside design firms and companies like Church & Dwight Co., the maker of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda.

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• In general, Sherwin-Williams is looking for ways to make the painting process faster and easier; make products more durable and unique in appearance; and give customers more ways to choose paint colors and visualize the results. Here’s how the External Innovation Team defines what they’re scouting for:

• Scarborough says that the company kicked off its open initiative around 2008. “Procter & Gamble had started their adventures in open innovation, and there was a desire from our company leadership to find new models to drive innovation.”

• In outlining the scope of what an external innovation group should be focused on, Scarborough says, “Everyone has to agree on the needs. There’s a lot of work up front. You have to go to every marketer, every R&D person. It can’t be, ‘Go out and find me something cool.’ It has to be something that will drive your business.”

• Sherwin-Williams funds academic research when it wants to explore “more risky and blue sky concepts” that “may be very early on the technology readiness scale.” One example: research at the University of Akron on biomimetics. “That’s a PhD who is looking at how nature solves problems, whether it’s lotus leaves that are super-hydrophobic, or geckos climbing walls with the pads on their feet, or butterfly colors. It’s research that asks, ‘What does nature do?'”

• Scarborough’s team has individuals focused on technology scouting; running a “proof of concept” testing lab and doing internet research.

• While scouting at conferences and industry events, the team is often approached by individuals and companies with a technology they want to share. “It may end up being something that we’re looking for, and that happens serendipitously all the time,” she says. “You never know who you’re going to talk to on a given day,” she says, adding that the youngest inventor she spoke with was only eight years old. Sherwin-Williams always has a booth at the TechConnect World Innovation Conference, an annual event that focuses on matching up compatible partners.

• The department scouts for all Sherwin-Williams divisions and conducts proof-of-concept testing and competitive research, before passing projects along to various divisional innovation labs for development. Sherwin-Williams has labs dedicated to its architectural brands (Sherwin-Williams, Dutch Boy), automotive finishes and diversified brands group (Krylon, Thompson’s, Minwax), and its Industrial Coatings, Protective & Marine and Chemical Coatings Design Engineering Group.

• One recent success story from the initiative is Paint Shield, launched earlier in 2016. Sherwin-Williams worked with microbiologists to develop the first EPA-registered paint that kills bacteria. It’s ideal for environments like hospitals, daycare centers, and locker rooms. Paint Shield took five years to develop, and another three years to get EPA approval. It comes in 550 colors and kills 99.9 percent of Staph (Staphylococcus aureus), MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), E. coli (Escherichia coli), VRE (Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecalis) and Enterobacter aerogenes within two hours of exposure on painted surfaces. The protection lasts for four years and continues to kill 90 percent of these germs with repeated exposure.

• Another example Scarborough cites is Refresh, sold under Sherwin-Williams’ Dutch Boy brand. Sherwin-Williams worked with an outside agency to design a plastic container with a built-in handle and spout that allows the paint to be poured more easily. The company worked with Church & Dwight Co. to add odor-absorbing capability to the Refresh paint; the containers feature Church & Dwight’s Arm & Hammer brand. Scarborough talks about that product in the video below:

• There’s no such thing as a standard partnership agreement or contract, Scarborough says. Every collaboration is unique. For that reason, “We work hand-in-glove with the legal department every day. There’s a person on my team who is a ninja at working with Legal to craft agreements, so we’re able to turn those things around very quickly.”

• After more than eight years of practicing open innovation, Scarborough says, “It’s not going away. It’s not a fad. You’ve got to have it in your portfolio.”

For the complete slide deck and presentation, see InnoLead’s Resource Center.