Fluid partnerships and collaborations, rather than insular corporate research, are becoming the lifeblood of innovation. This trend was confirmed yesterday by the results of GE’s second annual Global Innovation Barometer. However, the barometer, which surveyed nearly 3,000 U.S. and foreign executives on innovation, also found a “partnership paradox.” While the vast majority of the polled business leaders agreed that partnerships were an important part of innovation, only a fifth believed that finding new partners was an immediate priority to everyday research and development.
GE has been tapping the power of collaborative innovation since the days of Thomas Edison. (His Menlo Park had famously no offices or internal walls.) Today, the company is involved in hundreds of external collaborations. GE Global Research alone is participating in 300 research collaborations at any given time.
I can see you now: GE biomedical engineer Zhengyu Pang at work in GE’s Biosciences labs in Upstate New York, where GE’s cancer mapping technology is under development.
The roster of these projects spans a broad set of collaborators and technologies. They range from academic institutions like MIT (medical imaging), to hospitals like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (colon cancer research), automakers such as Nissan and government agencies (EV charging infrastructure) and venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (clean tech).
The partners typically share knowledge and expertise, or they can pool financial resources to back new ideas. For example, scientists at GE’s Global Research Center (GRC) in Niskayuna, New York, are building new molecular imaging tools to investigate the characteristics of tumors, which could lead to better diagnostics in the future. “We have great technologists,” said research leader Fiona Ginty. But Ginty’s GRC team needed to “get a deep understanding of the disease, how cancer spreads and progresses” to advance fast. Her team partnered with Sloan Kettering and tapped the brains of the hospital’s physicians and pathologists. “We have scientists who can speak the same language” as clinicians, but don’t have the hands-on knowledge of patient workflow and diagnostic needs, said Ginty. She said that the collaboration allows GE researchers to gather information faster and “make sure that what we are doing is relevant.”
An example of financial innovation collaboration is GE’s $100 million healthymagination challenge, which sought to identify ideas that advance breast cancer detection and early diagnostics. Phase one of the challenge, which closed last November, attracted thousands of researchers, businesses, students and other innovators and generated over 500 ideas. GE and its venture capital partners also launched a similar project in clean energy.
Not a pretty picture: An image of colon cancer tissue stained for a biomarker linked to poor patient outcome.
“Why?” asked GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt at a recent speech. “Because we’re a big innovator in healthcare and technology and because I know that in my lifetime we can treat major diseases, like cancer, more effectively at lower cost.”
Discussing the barometer’s results, GE’s senior vice president and Chief Marketing Officer Beth Comstock said that “creating conditions for meaningful innovation requires the right blend of internal and external factors that can readily be adapted to meet individual market and customer needs. Fortunately, this year’s study suggests that companies interested in competing are up for the challenge, ready to adopt and deploy a modern approach to innovation that will deliver both value and meaningful solutions.”