Community at Large: GreenBiz’s Joel Makower on ecomagination’s Mark Vachon0

ecomagination staff | Fri Oct 21 2011

A Word from MPD Talking with Michael Parrish DuDell, our Managing Editor

Everyday I ask myself what it means for ecomagination to be a good neighbor. It’s obvious that we’re excited about our own content—it would be strange if we weren’t—but what may be less obvious is how excited we are about the content produced by our friends and neighbors in the digital space.

We believe—I believe—that participating in a vibrant community is crucial to being a legitimate part of the conversation and providing our readers with the most fulfilling experience possible.

That’s why this week I’m turning my weekly column over to Joel Makower—the co-founder and executive editor of Greener World Media, Inc., which  produces GreenBiz.com. With over 20 years experience as a writer, speaker, and strategist, Joel shares our passion for clean technology and sustainable business.

Just last week, ecomagination’s Mark Vachon spoke at GreenBiz’s Innovation Forum, and I asked Joel to give our readers an inside look at the event. You’ll find that below. I hope you enjoy what Joel has to say, and I hope you’ll take a moment to visit GreenBiz.com.

If you have ideas on how ecomagination can continue to serve our community, please reach out on Twitter and share your thoughts. We always look forward to hearing from our readers.

The Mark of innovation

By Joel Makower

It wasn’t a matter of who we wanted to help kick off the 2011 GreenBiz Innovation Forum; it was a matter of whether Mark Vachon could actually come.

Vachon, of course, heads ecomagination. He’s the 29-year GE veteran charged with leading the company’s strategy to create new products and services that address some of the world’s biggest environmental challenges. For many of us in the green-business world, ecomagination is viewed as the gold standard of sustainability—as a driver for new products, services, and business models.

Having Vachon at the Innovation Forum was a natural. The goal of the annual October event is to help sustainability executives understand how innovation happens inside big companies, the opportunities at the intersection between innovation and sustainability, and the challenges companies encounter as they try to align these goals. After all, it’s one thing to commit your company to “green growth,” or one of the many other terms used to describe sustainable business opportunities. It’s another thing to find good, green ideas and bring them to market.

So, there were more than a few high-fives in the office on the day Vachon accepted our invitation. Given that the Forum shuns speeches and panels in favor of more interactive sessions, the format would be an on-stage interview with GreenBiz Senior Writer Marc Gunther.

Today, ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere, including customers and suppliers.

How does innovation happen in a company as large as GE, Gunther asked? The short answer: By tapping into new sources of ideas, including those outside the company walls. Vachon explained GE’s efforts to augment its own formidable R&D operation—its Global Research Centers employ 1,500 scientists in four locations, from Brazil to Bangalore—with ideas from, well, everywhere.

Sourcing innovative ideas from nontraditional sources, such as nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, government agencies and entrepreneurs, is a fairly new activity for GE. As such, it is joining a growing number of companies for whom “not invented here” has become old thinking.

Today, ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere, including customers and suppliers. And there’s a growing toolkit available for companies to tap into, such as the notion of crowdsourcing, tapping the wisdom of thousands—even millions—of others to bring new ideas and technologies to light.

“It’s very dangerous to believe that all great ideas are inside these four walls,” said Vachon. “So, how do I open that up? How do I create a whole new avenue for ideas and innovation and partnership?”

The answer came in the form of the Ecomagination Challenge GE launched last year. The first challenge sought good ideas on how to build the next-generation power grid. More than 5,000 ideas rolled in, seeking a piece of the $200 million in funding put up by GE and four leading venture capital firms. Out of those 5,000 came a dozen new partnerships for GE, such as Israel-based Winflex, which produces rotors for wind turbines from light, flexible, and inexpensive cloth sheets made out of composite materials; and IceCode, a company developed at Dartmouth College whose technology removes ice by using high-power pulses to apply heat from the inside out.

A second Ecomagination Challenge launched in January sought ideas and technologies focused on innovative ideas for capturing, managing, and using energy in the home.

It’s clear why start-up companies would be interested in GE: its global distribution capacity, investment capital, and massive research capabilities. But why would GE be interested in tiny firms, some yet to produce a nickel of revenue, and that aren’t ever likely to be anything more than a blip on GE’s revenue screen?

Vachon was quick to point out the vast potential of these ideas. “This wasn’t sort of a cute exercise. We really saw opportunity. And opportunity on our scale usually ends with a ‘B’”—as in a billion dollars or more of revenue potential. Already, GE has acquired one of the smart-grid Challenge winners, FMC-Tech, a provider of real-time power line monitoring.

To remain competitive, companies will need to find ways to get more ideas from more sources than ever before.

Gunther asked Vachon whether GE’s experience in seeking new sources for innovation was unique to GE, or whether it was transferrable to the 200 or so other large companies in the room. “It’s not only transferrable, it’s essential,” he replied. To remain competitive, companies will need to find ways to get more ideas from more sources than ever before. “But,” he added, “the real magic happens when these technologies are implemented at scale.”

Still, dancing with startups has been a learning experience for GE. “One of the things we’ve learned is our ability to relate to pre-revenue companies,” said Vachon, pointing out that it can be a challenge for a $150 billion giant like GE to work with entrepreneurs. “We’re developing those skills,” he says. “When you look into their eyes and their soul, this is all they have. They are so committed and passionate about this. In many instances they’ve tapped into their 401(k) or their college funds. It is deep and personal. Getting reconnected to that was very special for all of us to see.”

Michael Parrish DuDell

Photography by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group