This Is Why GE's Eco-Innovation Platform Is Exciting

General Electric

Photo: Mike Renlund / Flickr

“We’re looking for new models of innovation. We don’t have all the answers or all the capabilities.” This candid admission comes from Beth Comstock, GE’s Chief Marketing Officer. Comstock was telling me about the company’s growing innovation platform, the GE Ecomagination Challenge which inspires collaboration between GE and entrepreneurs.The ecomagination brand has done yeoman’s duty over the last six years. It started as a business strategy that wrapped a handful of greener products into one brand story about helping both the environment and customers. Now this strategy/brand hybrid has evolved into an umbrella idea to cover everything from operational improvements — such as eco-efficiency “Treasure Hunt” events that have saved GE a whopping $150 million in energy costs — to innovation initiatives, both internal and external. The Ecomagination Challenge, now in its second year, is GE’s foray in to the fast-growing world of “open” innovation.

Starting in mid-2010, GE asked the world for their ideas about “Powering the Grid” and, later on, “Powering Your Home.” In 12 months, GE received an astonishing 5,000 business plans. GE and its venture capital (VC) partners such as Kleiner Perkins and Rockport Capital have invested $134 million (of $200 million allocated) in a small selection of these businesses.

The Challenge “winners” range from relatively established clean tech companies such as software provider Hara, to a range of “two guys in a garage” innovators (10 of these small start-ups received $100,000 Innovation Awards). GE then set aside an additional $20 million for the Ecomagination Innovation Fund, run by VP of ecomagination Marc Vachon, to help accelerate some of the best ideas by launching commercial pilots with GE businesses.

While GE has worked for years with outside thinkers in universities and research labs, the scale of this effort is unique. And it’s expanding — GE recently launched both a China-focused ecomagination Challenge and, in a nice brand extension, a Healthymagination Challenge to identify healthcare technology ideas.

I see three major reasons that this kind of joint innovation between small and large companies is both exciting and absolutely necessary.

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