IF11: Innovation is Alive & Well

IF11: Innovation is Alive & Well

Despite policy gridlock (or worse) in Washington, despite cheap abundant natural gas (which threatens the development of renewable energy), despite Solyndra (which highlights the risks of crony capitalism), there is good news in the world of business and sustainability.

Innovation is alive and well in companies big and small.

That's my takeaway after spending the last 36 hours at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum in San Francisco. I'm a senior writer at GreenBiz and let me tell you, it's been great to get outside the Beltway bubble this week (and not merely because the weather here in S.F. is spectacular). Here's are four reasons why:

nike posterNike goes for gold: While she was tantalizingly skimpy on details, the always dynamic Hannah Jones of Nike made clear that the company's drive to become more sustainable is causing people inside the company to ask ever bolder questions–including how to generate sales without necessarily making and selling more shoes and apparel.

"How do you think about the world of sport and the athlete and human potential in terms of services?" Jones asked. "Could one create revenue streams that are decoupled from any material?"

"Our mission statement isn't 'make lots of stuff," she said. "It's 'inspire and innovate on behalf of the athlete."

For now, Nike is trying to develop different materials that "regenerative, recyclable, and reusable" but don't compromise performance. One example? World Cup uniforms made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles. This year (as the sign at right says), Nike will turn 440 million plastic bottles into high-performance gear.

Nike is one of the few companies that manages to make sustainability fun, hip and stylish. If you doubt it, check out Nike Better World.

mark vachonGE doubles down on Ecomagination: GE's head of Ecomagination, Mark Vachon, told me that absence of energy policy from the U.S. isn't stopping from GE from continuing to invest in wind, solar and smart grid businesses. The company has committed $10 billion to investments in EcoMagination products and services over the next five years, twice what it spent during the program's first phase.

"The U.S. (clean energy) market will slow down," Vachon said. "Is the reaction, let's put our pencils down and quit? That's not in our DNA. Our policy is action." GE expects the growth of its sprawling EcoMagination portfolio to be greater outside the U.S., in places like China, Australia and Brazil, than it is here. "China couldn't be more clear about where they are going," he said.

GE's approach to innovation is both to draw upon the 1,500 scientists in its research labs and to open itself to new ideas from outside the company. The company's Ecomagination Challenge, a crowdsourcing platform, attracted more than 5,000 ideas, and led to investments or other partnerships with more than a dozen companies.

Up on the roof: Innovation requires breaking down barriers. Dow, the world's largest chemical company, had to collaborate across silos and invite in partners to develop the Dow Powerhouse solar shingle, which integrates solar PV panels into rooftop shingles that protect your home and deliver clean renewable energy.

"We want to redefine the rooftop," said Kirk Thompson of Dow Solar. "Your rooftop will no longer be a depreciating asset. It will be an asset that delivers value to the homeowner."

To develop the solar shingle, Dow brought together its expertise in materials science, its building construction business and its manufacturing capability. It will make the solar panels at a new facility in Midland, MI, where it is headquartered. Dow got a $12.8 million U.S. Department of Energy grant in September to support the project.

Turning waste into gold: Privahini Bradoo, the co-founder of a startup now called Biomine, delivered the most intriguing presentation at the GreenBiz event, although she was purposefully vague about her company, which aims to extract value from the more than 40 million tons (!) of electronic waste discarded annually around the world. As she noted wryly, waste is a byproduct of the fast-changing electronics business where computers, phones and TVs are outdated almost as soon as they exit the store.

"As you have accelerating innovation, you have accelerating obsolescence," Bradoo said. "This is the dark side of Moore's law."

Roughly 80% of the U.S. consumer's e-waste goes to landfill, and most of the rest gets shipped to India or China for "recycling" under conditions that should appall. Her company aims to turn this "humanitarian disaster" into an economic opportunity.

The economics sound promising. "A single ton of circuit boards creates the same amounts of high value precious metals as 150 tons of commercial grade ore," Bradoo said. Depending on commodity prices, those circuit boards could generate up to $26,000 of value.

To capture that value, Biomine will have to find a way to collect enough feedstock and efficiently separate metals like gold and copper and rare earth elements from the rest. Here, Bradoo was vague, explaining, "We're not able to say very much because we're in the process of patenting." An inkling of what she's up to comes from this account of how Biomine and Bradoo, a 2008 graduate of Harvard Business School, won HBS's Alumni New Venture contest last spring.

Born in India and raised in Oman, Bradoo has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard. She cautioned me after her talk that the company is still "very much in the incubation stage" and in semi-stealth mode. It doesn't have a website and is in the process of rebranding itself, possibly as "GreenOre." So why pay attention? The firm's investors include Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins, where the firm's three employees are now housed. That suggests that Bradoo and her colleagues may be onto something.