Our findings suggest that the opportunity evolution process within the SCEP has three main phase elements of co-intuiting, co-interpreting, and co-integrating, working to produce new venture ideas and opportunity confidence. Our analytical identification of elements of the opportunity co-construction process facilitates a deeper, more temporal understanding of SEE development. To understand this process, we applied the under-appreciated evolving idiosyncratic view and examined the gradual development of opportunity confidence in the SEE. By embracing a design science approach, we involved a range of stakeholders in the project to validate our thinking. We participated in formal and informal meetings with scientists, designers, and business representatives where we presented our findings and, through discussions, tested the generalizability and feasibility of the identified process. In this way, we were able to derive a useful model that represents the co-designed SEE artifact that project members had imagined, which helped us to structure ecosystem features and provided us with a useful communication tool to explicate the co-evolution of entrepreneurial opportunities. In the following, we illustrate our findings of this design process, first by presenting the three different phases before proceeding to integrate them into a practical framework.
The first phase: co-intuiting
Co-intuiting can be defined as initial joint activities that help develop vague ideas on technical, design, and financial possibilities. Our analysis revealed that the first phase essentially consists of co-ideating, “quick-and-dirty” prototyping, and creating own insights. Co-ideating refers to jointly generating new ideas, sometimes by co-experimenting with novel materials. Overall, the first phase is characterized by idea divergence. Fresh ideas may originally come either from an individual working alone at speed in the lab or sometimes spring from formal workshops (e.g., using specialist facilitators and cottage-style retreats) by sketching out future alternative possibilities. In the SCEP, participants believed that truly novel ways of working with cellulose will come from understanding different ways of working—transdisciplinary working—and from boundary-crossing, in particular interlinking new ideas and approaches based on the diversity of the participants and the possibility of synergies.
Co-intuiting also requires actors to isolate themselves temporarily in order to create their own insights. As long as the SEE is not yet defined, participants sometimes have to follow their initial individual intuition, which in itself requires a strong prior knowledge level in their particular field of expertise. Some participants immersed themselves regularly in the academic and scientific literature in their field as a form of inspiration, and looked for an obvious opportunity derived from looking at the scientific literature. As such, there is a large degree of experimentation; for example, one of the senior design researchers would retire to her own workshop to work on individual enquiries into the material properties and experiment to find uniqueness that could become valuable grounds for opportunities later in the process: “Yeah I think it’s in a way that a fresh idea ...to make something else than the traditional paper or things like that out of wood” (Interviewee no. 7, henceforth abbreviated “no. 7”).
Co-ideation and individual experimentation are often followed by what the participants term quick-and-dirty prototyping. In the words of one designer: “The main thing is to go away…I can really start to play with the materials” (no. 7). Prototyping further consists in testing material properties and possible production methods, and using the materials to create relatively raw concept objects that display the material’s qualities. In quick-and-dirty prototyping, participants develop partly imaginary and partly real combinations of product and service offerings, which are nominally given potential markets or users and routes to market. A prototype can then demonstrate raw objects or examples of new venture ideas with varying characteristics to participants to test their reactions.
This first phase of co-intuition elicits an early-stage iterative process which is characteristic of design thinking (Dorst 2011), where the participants favor experimentation over elaborate planning and use collegial, communal feedback to drive further iterations. Table 2 presents illustrative quotes for the three theoretical themes that comprise the first phase of the SEE opportunity development process.
The second phase: co-interpreting
In the co-interpretation phase, potential entrepreneurs engage in explaining and defending the fuzzy images and demonstration items of their insights. Co-interpreting can be defined as jointly making sense of potential ideas and identifying possibilities with a high likelihood for success. In the case of the SCEP, this consists of spotting false negatives, looking for opportunity gaps, testing ideas, and pursuing a synergistic approach (see Table 2).
Chesbrough (2004) introduced the concept of false negatives in product development, where an open innovation approach revealed alternative application potential in product development projects that had been considered to be of little or no value. Spotting false negatives describes a similar activity. As an example, scientists (no. 8, no. 12) had seen the results of an experiment with materials—in this case, a ruching effect (a gathering or pleating effect) from 3D-printing cellulose on fabric (as the cellulose dried)—as a negative characteristic until one of the designers saw the potential in ruching effects within fashion textiles. Several interviewees (no. 7, no. 12, no. 17) noted this “nice accidents” effect.
In the SCEP, looking for opportunity gaps occurs within small cells of participants exchanging knowledge in pairs or groups of three. The wider nascent system of about 80 people splits into small cells of two or three individuals working across disciplines in a form of bisociation. Multidisciplinary work in these small cell-like groups offers numerous advantages. Such constellations deal better with complexity, foster creativity, and results have greater impact and cater to larger audiences. For co-development of opportunities, it has been a benefit to focus on the technical, functional, and perceptual characteristics of materials alongside each other. This integrated multidisciplinary approach to looking for opportunity gaps that focuses simultaneously on all three types of characteristics is desirable because materials need to respond to complex and interrelated design requirements. Eureka moments are created by having the different perspectives of small cells of different specialists working together under a common platform: “Maybe that gives us some benefit if it’s working in a way that, but in a way that is something unique that may not be able to be done in all places” (no. 18).
A major activity in co-interpreting is the testing of ideas. This initially takes place in a series of workshops to test the quick-and-dirty concepts and simple objects (prototypes) that have already been created via co-intuiting. The aim in this phase is to further concretize fuzzy possibilities into product ideas which can be developed into product mock-ups or demonstration artifacts and subsequently can be pursued as serious opportunities. In the SCEP, Cellulife Workshops were organized by members of the design group as 1-day, intensive design-driven seminars for designers, scientists, and business specialists to explore and visualize future applications of cellulose. The workshops included a guided design activity geared towards the development of customer journey maps, that is, visual interpretations of a story from an individual’s perspective of his or her relationship with the possible product over time. This is done by developing “personas” (Dorst 2011): main characters who illustrate the needs, goals, thoughts, feelings, opinions, expectations, and pain points of a user across a defined timeline. For example, one of the material designers (no. 7) had created small tubular structures from nanocellulose, which were extremely strong, lightweight, and biodegradable. One Cellulife Workshop resulted in a persona and subsequent storyboarding of such nanocellulose tubular structures which determined that they might be appreciated by hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who value sustainability. Such tubes could be used in hiking equipment to replace plastics and carbon fiber in tent poles, walking sticks, stool legs, kayak paddles, and so on.
In co-interpreting, a synergistic approach is used to derive synergies from collaboration between scientists and designers, and boundary spanning is encouraged. The diversity of participants in the nascent system has brought together different intellects from different organizations, with different lenses and a mix of various philosophies, thereby producing (unforeseen) synergies; and this has been a key enabler, according to many respondents. Several respondents (no. 7, no. 12, no. 14) remarked on the critical role played by designers in the SCEP when looking for opportunity gaps, due to the fact that they provide the interface between engineers and consumers, and that they can span the boundary lines between disciplines, as well those between scientists and the consumer. In this phase, multiple instances of “nice accidents” may occur, where transdisciplinary working can lead to eureka moments.
In short, co-interpreting is essential to progress in developing a SEE as it helps actors to explore possibilities formed in the co-intuiting phase and to concretize them through storyboarding and storytelling into more confident opportunities. These forms of internal collaboration are conducted around the preparation of mock-ups for later demonstrations. In the hiking example above, the decision was made to construct a hiking stool and kayak paddles as demonstration items. Cells of participants then explored possible competitor characteristics and retail price points in hiking and outdoor stores and presented possible mock-up ideas and intentions to project progress meetings, an iterative process built into the project way of working, to decide the prototypes on which to focus. The cells then produce the product prototype (or demo object), which can be used as a focal object (a proof of concept) when pitching opportunity ideas in the next phase.
Third process phase: co-integrating
Co-integrating can be defined as jointly evaluating the readiness of an idea and mapping out the future avenues for implementation. The co-integration phase resembles a convergence process where the evaluation—from negative to positive—of a possibility bestows opportunity confidence (Davidsson 2015; Dimov 2010). In essence, co-integrating refers to co-sensemaking and then co-creating commercialization paths (see Table 2).
Uniquely in the co-creation approach to SEE development, business specialists facilitate a general ecosystem and cellular-level co-sensemaking in arriving at convergence decisions in terms of which possibilities are to be promoted into opportunities that will lead towards partner-venturing, spin-off start-ups, or future funding options. Such sensemaking work—to co-enact the future—is a significant part of the third phase and helps with the general, collective, and prospective sensemaking process. Thus, sensemaking frameworks are presented to help with the mutual and individual sensemaking processes necessary for providing individuals in the community with a degree of clarity of direction in the medium and long term. In particular, a review of technological and commercial readiness was carried out to help convergence towards product ideas that will be taken forward either as spin-offs or as partnering ideas with corporate venturing arms. The project produced a traffic-light roadmap to help the project converge on key demonstration materials, processes, and opportunities. An influential interviewee (no. 4) pointed out that the peer technology-readiness and peer commercial readiness reviews had clarified the range of, and helped with convergence towards, the probable opportunities that were to be taken forward.
Alongside the technology-readiness review, a generic gap analysis was performed to roadmap the phases of work needed to be taken by the community in order to identify issues now faced by project opportunities in bringing them to market and to suggest how to bridge some of these gaps. The visuals that were produced aided the sensemaking process within the project and were used iteratively in the monthly review meetings to assess progress and to define the steps necessary for concretizing the opportunities. A key benefit of this approach for the SCEP is that it creates learning events around the communication associated with the development of the roadmap, particularly the need for aligning technology and commercial perspectives. The roadmaps serve as time-based and multilayered visual charts which provide a structured framework to reflect iteratively on the levels of confidence and possible pathways forward:
So even though you can do something in your kitchen. What would be required in order to make a true business even though it would be small but still sort of really solid case. ...what are the sort of steps that need to be taken here on in order to really realize this kind of business. (no. 4)
The business specialists within the nascent system play a further role in facilitating co-integration through co-creating commercialization paths. Here, the aim is to suggest and then collaboratively develop pathways for the converged technologies and nascent business ideas towards technology transfer or start-up. The pathways blend the ideation work, the prototyping or mock-up work, and, finally, the necessary work on competitors, pricing, and pitching preparation in order to gain the resources (in terms of partnerships and funding) needed to continue. Co-creating these commercialization paths involves mapping opportunity pathways by building on the reviews for the levels of technological and commercial readiness with small teams or “cells” working on material technologies and mock-ups.
Alongside these potential commercialization pathways, market validation is provided by the voices of experienced industry and business professionals. This becomes a key integrating mechanism and convergence driver. The feedback is provided by experts in forestry, textile, and industrial composites. The social influences on the opportunity-development process pertain to the interpretation and integration inputs received by the potential entrepreneurs from the social audience with which they engage in discussing, selling, or defending their ideas. In the SCEP, perhaps the most valued feedback has come after, or during, large seminar displays and conferences from potential customers. Public disclosure pushes opportunity confidence in certain materials and contexts. In our empirical case, large domestic forestry companies are part of the external stakeholder community and have participated in workshops on several occasions annually to give feedback on possible value chains, partnerships for corporate venturing, and start-up support. These social contacts may provide the potential entrepreneur with access to various resources—in financial, technical, and marketing forms—that could potentially increase or shrink the scope of the initial idea.
As a result, this co-integrating phase drove the level of opportunity confidence to isolate those opportunities that could become technology-transfer opportunities as spin-offs from those that might provide benefits as stand-alone start-ups.
A process framework of sustainable entrepreneurial ecosystems
Based on our fieldwork and subsequent data analysis of the SCEP, we constructed a process model of how opportunities evolve through three interaction-based phases. Figure Fig. 2 visualizes the process framework as three phases, made possible by two fundamental enablers. A shared sustainability intention is the essential foundation, or cornerstone, for the development of the SEE and the process of developing opportunity confidence. It is the foundation also for a positive emotional climate to develop, which then iteratively further strengthens the shared intention. The shared sustainability intention and a conducive emotional climate function as cognitive and emotive meta-enablers. They develop linearly, over time, from an initial belief to result in the Sustainable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem through their enabling of all three co-construction phases in the opportunity-development process. The three phases are entrenched in complex and iterative collaborative social practice, and the opportunity co-evolution process relies on these important meta-enablers (a shared sustainable intention and a conducive emotional climate) to develop opportunity confidence.
Shared sustainability intention
A strong shared intention (Bratman 2014) is a powerful enabler for holding the nascent ecosystem together, and this shared intention in the SCEP is fundamentally about sustainability, that is, to save the Finnish forest (or help it prosper) as a natural and economic resource. The shared sustainability intention lies in the fact that individuals have a common expectation and commit to a joint activity (Bratman 2014). An emotional attachment to the forest can be observed in the location where the project takes place, and the forest has played a key role in that site’s history (Haarla et al. 2018). Our data analysis shows that the shared sustainable intention has three elements: a quasi-religious belief, a common vision, and multidisciplinarity as a goal.
The first of these, a quasi-religious belief, centers on the role of the forest as a physical place and space, and as a source of wealth and health. Respondents describe a form of spirituality that they have with the forest, with timber and its components (e.g., cellulose) as something resembling a religion, and there is a common feeling that the SCEP is performing a spiritual quest in transforming the value of the forest. The SCEP is diverse in terms of characters and backgrounds, and it achieves coherence through a spiritual quest to find alternate, sustainable uses for the forest and alternative uses of wood materials—the large number of people from disparate backgrounds is held together by a “higher” shared purpose.
The SCEP emphasizes the importance of social impact as a primary objective that motivates project participants’ engagement. In particular, the project aims to create new businesses dealing with cellulosic materials which can potentially have a large impact on Finnish society. A spontaneous and recurrent reference to social impact appears in interviews, and the message is clear that initiatives are fundamentally about socially beneficial innovation, and that profit and forms of financial value are not the immediate concern (e.g., no. 15, no. 17). The common vision lies in a systemic shift from the mass production of paper to a sustainable, value-added use of the forest, in order to fulfill a common desire to make better use of the forest, with the belief that it can be used for things other than the production of timber and paper. It is recognized that, through its expertise in cellulose material science and its natural access to wood resources, Finland can be a leader in the creation of a sustainable bioeconomy derived from the forest: “I would call it a shared purpose, and it’s different from the goal, I see a higher purpose” (no. 22).
When participants’ intended actions are interdependent, they develop shared intentions (Bratman 2014) and multidisciplinarity is a goal in itself. Individuals within the SCEP have personal intentions, but they are also bound together by a common belief that the perceived societal impact of the work in the nascent ecosystem is creating new opportunities from the forest through a “new way of working” which is multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary (see Table 2 for illustrative quotes).
The emotional climate represents certain factors and practices that enable participants in the nascent ecosystem to combine the creative freedom to generate new venture ideas and generate opportunity confidence. One aspect of this working climate is a strong passion for renewal, to discover new aspects and new uses for cellulosic materials. There is a deep desire to grasp and challenge the newest material science to harness the possibilities of cellulose and to drive those possibilities towards business opportunities. These drives to investigate and discover possibilities are built on inherent curiosity and being open to new applications. A common passion is the willingness to direct the passion for science and discovery towards new business creation. The generic pathways to new business appear to come from either partnering with an already existing medium-to-large-scale business in the form of corporate venturing, or from a spin-off start-up style business coming directly from the SCEP. A common passion for spin-off thinking for partner-venturing and rapid up-scaling is clear.
There is a belief in the benefits of the fact that many of the participants in the SCEP already know each other and may have already worked together at some point, and that, despite differing scientific backgrounds, they are “already close,” thus leading to the swift development of trust. This high level of trust means that they have the possibility to be “positively critical.” To embed this enabler more strongly, the SCEP manager organized a particular form of team training so that participants could learn to appreciate each other’s different work cultures, knowledge sets, and thought processes, and in particular so that scientists could learn to understand the “outcome model” of the designers and that the designers could understand the scientists’ “measurement model.”
A model for how the SCEP participants work together was evident in the high level of freedom within a formal structure which respondents considered to be important for allowing the work of new venture ideation and opportunity development to progress. Participants perceived benefits in having a form of systematic work alongside the freedom provided in a work system which had essentially no hierarchy. Openness was encouraged, and an emphasis was placed on speaking freely under the principle that there were no silly ideas. In addition, the team heard presentations on how designers and scientists work, and meeting venues were rotated so that some meetings were held in laboratories or studios in order to enable participants to physically cross borders and be more open about their work and how it is conducted. Furthermore, the monthly review and iteration meetings were rotated to give participants a feel for the working environment of the project’s other organizations and to facilitate boundary-crossing. Interviewees commented that a key factor for success was that the cross-organizational and cross-departmental work seemed almost borderless, and that an inexperienced observer would view it as a single, organizational team at work. “And if you’re sitting in the meeting, it’s difficult to know which organization people are from” (no. 12).