Banking on the future: How an open innovation platform helped Société Générale make single use plastics a thing of the past.

When it comes to solving problems, two heads are better than one. But there’s no need to stop there. The more perspectives we have on a problem, and the greater the variety of skills and expertise we can apply to it, the higher the chances of finding a solution.

This is the basic principle of open innovation, which has quickly become a favored innovation technique for large organizations all round the world. But when these organizations decide to collaborate with others to tackle their biggest challenges, how can they find the right people to help?

Yohann Melamed, Justine Shpota, Xavier Dubos & Lisanne Addink-Dölle

CEO and founder of Agorize | Startup Growth Manager at Agorize | International Sourcing Project Manager at Société Générale's Sourcing Division | CEO at Coffee Based

Société Générale Breaks Free From Plastic

Financial services group Société Générale has a large footprint, with thousands of employees, millions of clients, and multiple locations around the world. Having made commitments to minimize its environmental impact, Société Générale wanted to eliminate single use plastics in its French premises by 2025. This represented a significant challenge for its sourcing department, which knew it needed to find a new approach to solve the problem.

As Xavier Dubos, International Sourcing Project Manager at Société Générale's Sourcing Division states: “As a sourcing department, we’re used to doing tenders, but this means you have to know who your providers are, and you have to know the solutions.

When you're facing topics or problems that you can’t identify a provider for, you have to find a different way. This is why we thought about an open sourcing activity.”

With the sourcing department’s existing providers unable to help them eliminate plastic, Société Générale needed another solution. Enter open innovation platform Agorize, which partnered with Société Générale to set up its ‘Free From Plastic’ Challenge.

Defining The Problem

The first step in launching any open innovation challenge is to really pinpoint the problem that needs solving.

For Société Générale, this meant identifying what kinds of plastic were used in its French premises - and where. This turned out to be predominantly in vending machine snack wrappers and disposable coffee cups.

They then set out four different problem areas for the challenge, hoping to attract startups and innovative solution providers that could help them eliminate plastic in their automated food and drink distribution, catering, event catering, and a catch-all open category.

At this point, it was possible to define the selection criteria and timelines for the challenge, and decide where to place innovation experts from Agorize in Société Générale’s team in order to make the maximum impact.

Attracting the Right Startups Through Clear Communication

Agorize’s strategy for sourcing startups and innovators is always based around its partner’s needs. Société Générale, for example, needed mature providers who already had a viable product and were ready to roll it out at scale across multiple locations in France. This also involved being able to operate under all the necessary regulatory constraints.

Even though Société Générale is a global brand, Agorize’s experience was invaluable in helping them reach a network of innovators around the world. “The value we’ve had from Agorize has also been to have the right advert for our challenge, everywhere in the world, in order to attract the right proposals,” says Xavier.

On Agorize’s side, carefully managing the demands placed on startups is also key. The company is careful to ask for the right amount of information at the right time, with clearly-defined application criteria, a simple brief, and a minimal amount of information required from the startups in the early stages.

“The best way to engage startups is to not ask them for too many things at the start of the process,” says Yohann Melamed, CEO and founder of Agorize.

Interestingly, Yohann notes that when it comes to attracting startups to join a challenge, it’s not always about the money on offer.

“Prize money is important,” he says, “but in our experience raising the prize money of a challenge from $20k to $50k, for example, doesn’t have much effect on the amount or quality of startups it attracts. What matters is for the startups to work with the companies at the end.”

As Yohann notes, since this is the ultimate aim of companies when setting up an innovation challenge in the first place, they’re often prepared to pay a little more to run a pilot project if it means they can find the right partner, and the right solution for their needs.

Staying Focused On The Ultimate Goal

The team working on the plastics challenge at Société Générale worked closely with their colleagues in HR and the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) departments, to make sure any potential solutions were viable for the organization. As the in-house experts on environmental matters, the CSR department really scrutinized the startups on the Free From Plastic challenge, making sure it was clear where their products came from and how they were produced.

The ultimate winner of the challenge was Coffee Based, a manufacturer of biodegradable cups from waste materials including coffee grounds and silverskin - the coating on the outside of the coffee bean.

For Coffee Based, it was both a clear understanding of Société Générale’s needs and the knowledge that they could meet these demands which encouraged them to apply to the challenge:

“It was important for us to show that we are able to produce on a large scale, that we can deliver on time, and that we have experience with delivering cups already to other big corporates,” says Lisanne Addink-Dölle, CEO at Coffee Based. “These kinds of examples gave the clients a confident feeling that we were a party they could work with and that we could provide a solution to their problem.”

The company has now partnered with Société Générale, supplying 25,000 cups to its French premises.

ESG and the Importance of Open Innovation

As the prominence of social and environmental issues continues to grow, ESG is becoming an increasing priority for the organizations working with Agorize. More than 70% of all its innovation programs are now connected to these concerns, whether that’s a startup competition tackling energy efficiency, student challenges addressing sustainable agriculture, or internal innovation focused on diversity and inclusion.

It’s clear that now, more than ever, we need open innovation to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. As Yohann Melamed states, it might even be the only viable way forward. But this means finding new ways to connect problem solvers and innovators with challenges.

“Open innovation is one of the few tools we have to solve a lot of critical issues - relating to the climate, or the environment, or social challenges,” he says.

“When there’s a problem, we have to find the solution. But the solution can be anywhere in the world, so we need to find the right players to provide it.”

Building the right innovation ecosystems is therefore crucial. Learn how in Agorize latest whitepaper that can be downloaded here.