Ever since Samuel Hopkins received the first U.S. patent for making potash in 1790, inventors and companies have used patents as shield and sword to protect their ideas. Not anymore. Channeling the lean startup vibe, GE has invited innovators to turn swords into gadgets.
For the first time in the company’s history, GE will open thousands of patents to a community of inventors and tinkerers gathered around Quirky, an innovative design company using online collaboration and crowdsourcing to develop new products.
GE and Quirky will also launch “Wink: Instantly Connected,” a product development platform focused on building a co-branded line of app-enabled domestic devices connected to the Internet. These gadgets will improve health, water and air quality, and security, and can be produced by using advanced manufacturing tools and technologies like 3-D printing. Quirky will develop the products for distribution to large U.S. retailers. People can start pitching their ideas today.
The Wink products will marry everyday things with the Internet and bring this union, which GE calls the Industrial Internet, to people’s homes. Ben Kaufman, Quirky founder and CEO, says that “our future will be driven by access to things via our smartphones – there is a ton of invention to be done in this area and no one owns this category.”
Kaufman says that “for years patents have become widely misunderstood and misused. We are going to return patents to their original purpose to act as a blueprint for technological and societal progress while protecting inventors and becoming a source of inspiration for future creators.”
GE will first open up patents that include optical systems, a potentially disruptive technology called dual cooling jets, and surface coating methods called barrier coating.
Besides its patents and technology, GE will also bring to the partnership commercial expertise and scale. Quirky will contribute crowdsourcing know-how and speedy product development. “We admire Quirky’s speed, collaboration and inventiveness and by opening up lab-proven technology and patents to everyday inventors we can help inspire new ideas and accelerate advanced manufacturing innovation,” said Beth Comstock, GE’s chief marketing officer. “At GE we are passionate about innovation at market speed, working with entrepreneurs and finding new models for business. This partnership is just another way we can help inspire invention and help scale it.”
Starting with Thomas Edison, GE’s success and growth has stood on innovation and product development. Two GE employees have received Nobel Prizes and three other Nobel laureates spent time working at GE Global Research labs (GRC). GE engineers have built machines and devices that revolutionized how we live, from the first U.S. jet engine and the first full-body MRI machine, to the invention of the LED.
GRC employs 3,000 scientists in six labs around the world, including 1,125 PhDs. In 2012 alone, GE filed 3,522 patents and spent $4.5 billion on research and development.