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StelLab: looking back over five years of open innovation in automotive technology

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On 15 October 2015, StelLab (Science Technologies Exploratory Lean LABoratory) celebrated its fifth anniversary! Set up to coordinate scientific partnerships, the mission of StelLab is to create an interdisciplinary network for exchange and discussion between scientists, engineers and experts from PSA Peugeot Citroën.
Its ambition: to identify and develop new technologies and innovations for the mobility of the future.
In order to find out more about this exceptional open innovation network, I talked to its founder, Sylvain Allano, Chief Scientific Officer with PSA Peugeot Citroën.

How did StelLab come into being?

Sylvain Allano: “StelLab came about through a plan to open the Group to universities and schools as part of an open innovation approach. The idea was that it should help us to prepare for the major technological shifts of the future. With the Group’s research engineers and experts, we identified a number of high-performance campuses of excellence that they had already worked with successfully in France and around the world. We created ten OpenLabs in France and a number of others around the world (China, Brazil, USA, etc.). We also have two innovation cells in Switzerland and Singapore, as well as several units forming part of the Research and Advanced Engineering department (DRIA) in countries including China, Brazil and Spain. These units are innovation relay centres, acting as extensions of the DRIA outside France.

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We decided to call the network “StelLab” from “stella” or “star”: hence the star fish on the logo. It’s a good representation of our network: the centre of the star is in Vélizy with its rays extending outwards. It has a central anchor while remaining agile and mobile. After two years, we replaced the star by “the web”. The organisation became cross-cutting rather than being centred solely in Vélizy. The various OpenLabs work with each other, contributing to and enriching each other’s work. This enables us to promote the emergence of disruptive technologies that we call “nuggets”.   

What results have you obtained with StelLab?

S.A.: “Around thirty breakthrough technologies have been developed, some of which will soon be ready for inclusion in vehicle projects. StelLab has demonstrated its ability as a relay centre for skills and expertise. We are able to rely on each OpenLab, which is like an extension of the Group’s field of expertise. Open innovation remains at the centre of the project and the network has inspired similar initiatives. We expect to see a number of start-ups, founded by academics from our OpenLabs. My objective is for there to be as many start-ups as there are OpenLabs!
All the laboratories have asked to renew their contracts with us and the OpenLabs will soon also bring in non-competing manufacturers with whom we will be able to share open research programmes. This is because the ideas developed by the OpenLabs may have applications in sectors other than cars. Including this inter-manufacturer component is important for the future of StelLab.
Last, there is a fairly surprising side effect, which is contributing to the increased presence of all three Group brands. I call it the “car park effect”. Over the past five years, looking from time to time at the car parks of the university buildings housing our Open Labs – particularly in regions where we do not have a production site – we can see that the proportion of vehicles made by our three brands is growing. This means that the researchers working with us in these OpenLabs are increasingly buying brand vehicles! As a result, the OpenLabs are creating new areas of influence for the Group at regional level. However, this is effective only if we are loyal and if we remain for the long term.”

From a personal standpoint, what would you say about these five years of open innovation?

S.A.: “For me, the first five years of StelLab are first and foremost a sign of trust. The building of StelLab coincided with a tough period for the Group but I received constant support and encouragement, even though we needed to implement frugal innovation without additional resources. When the storm was raging, it was a great feeling to be able to continue building and to pave the way for the Group’s technological future. It was a great lesson in human trust. It was also a wonderful surprise to see so many of the academics who got involved in this adventure with us turning into real car enthusiasts. We built up real momentum, and developed a real sense of solidarity in moving forward with our shared project, not only out of love for our work but also out of a passion for cars.”

What does the future hold for StelLab?

S.A.: “Over the next few years, we aim to set up more OpenLabs to support the Group on international markets. We are currently working on the set-up for our first OpenLab in Africa. In France, we are entering a phase of renewal for our OpenLabs, and working with our academic partners in drafting new research programmes that reflect the Group’s priorities for innovation. At the Plateau de Saclay, we aim to streamline and strengthen our partnerships as part of the initiative PSA Tech@ Paris-Saclay. In this way, StelLab is getting ready for a new lease of life from 2016. We are turning it into a StelLab 2.0, a stronger entity and one of the four ecosystems of the Group’s open innovation policy!”  

Presentation of the automotive open innovation network

The StelLab network is made up of three complementary components:
OpenLabs: campus-based laboratories shared by PSA Peugeot Citroën with universities and engineering schools. Each OpenLab works on a given topic, with a team made up of students, PhD students, lecturers, researchers and engineers from PSA Peugeot Citroën. The OpenLabs supply the Group with “nuggets”, disruptive technologies that meet technological needs or marketing expectations (“Technology or Market Pull”) or anticipate future requirements (“Technology Push”).
Innovation cells: meet the need for technological intelligence and report on weak signals as well as technological and social trends. Innovation cells provide the Group with information on weak signals, emerging trends, technological proposals and emerging ideas.
Academic chairs: allocated to universities and schools, these chairs were set up not to develop technologies but rather to promote the creation of teaching programmes and the implementation of basic research programmes in areas of interest to the Group, including in the field of human and social sciences.

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