GE, Quirky collaborate on sustainable innovations via M2M

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GE, Quirky collaborate on sustainable innovations via M2M

GE and crowdsourced innovation platform Quirky are teaming up to support and encourage the creation of connected devices for fleet management, health care and sustainability solutions that participate in the so-called "Internet of Things."

Under the new relationship, GE will make thousands of existing patents available to the Quirky product development community starting in May.

The two companies hope these technologies will serve as the foundation for next-generation smart appliances and consumer products -- co-branded under the Wink: Instantly Connected -- that can communicate status, updates or other data to smartphones or Web software dashboards.

The idea is to encourage innovation that builds on GE technology without fear of potential patent infringement or retribution akin to the ongoing conflict between Apple and Samsung over smartphone innovation.

"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 the source of inspiration for future creators," said Ben Kaufman, founder and CEO of Quirky, in statement about the new GE-Quirky collaboration.

"This is good news for innovators, consumers and our country," said David Kappos, partner at law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, commenting on the GE-Quirky relationship. "There is tremendous value in patented ideas, and it is wonderful to see new collaborative ventures aimed at moving ideas into the marketplace."

Three initial areas of focus

Quirky, launched in 2009, is one of several Web platforms focused on encouraging collaboration on new product development. Its in-house team of engineers and designers considers ideas from all over the world, bringing concepts from sketch to store shelves. Some of its national retail and sales partners include Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and Amazon.com. Right now, the community includes almost 400,000 inventors.

The new collaboration with GE initially will center on three areas:

Optical systems:  Solutions such as contactless fingerprinting, semiconductor quality and advanced medical optics could be enabled by GE's holographic storage technology and fast-focusing technology, which enables rapid high-resolution two-dimensional (2-D) capture of three-dimensional (3-D) images.

Barrier coatings:  A future generation of lighter, thinner electronics devices could be made possible by GE's Ultra-High Barrier technology, which uses thin-film encapsulation to protect against moisture and oxygen.

Telematics and asset tracking: Modules that will make tracking fleet solutions and vehicle navigation systems even more sophisticated.

"We are excited to see how the Quirky community uses tools from our scientists and technologist around the world to develop products in an entirely different way," said Beth Comstock, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at GE, in a statement.

History of success

The new relationship builds on the success of several earlier projects encouraged by GE and Quirky, such as the development of an "intelligent" milk container.

The MilkMaid, created as the result of a challenge in spring 2012, measures the milk's pH levels and gauges when it is beginning to go sour. The technology sends updates via an application for the Apple iPhone, suggesting when it should be replaced. It can also keep track of other conditions, such as whether the temperature is rising, which could be a sign that the refrigerator door is open or that the electricity is out.

"The base of the jug contains a GSM radio module, antenna, battery and SIM card, basically all the important parts of a cell phone,” said Brett Kovacs, head of marketing for Quirky, in a GE blog post about the technology. “When a microcontroller monitoring the milk detects changes, it turns on the radio and sends a SMS or text message to the user’s cell phone. It also indicates the condition using the LEDs and a buzzer in the base. Optionally, the user could request the status of the milk by sending a SMS to the jug, which would be answered with temperature, milk remaining and estimated drink-by date.”

Similar relationships

Quirky will be GE's main partner for the connected device category for the duration of this relationship. However, the giant technology company is working with several other startups to encourage innovation and product development related to its Industrial Internet strategy.

In early April, for example, GE announced several solutions for health care and aviation management that emerged from its first Industrial Internet Quests run in conjunction with Kaggle, a platform focused on data science solutions.

The goal of the Flight Quest was to encourage development of analytics software applications that could help improve predicted arrival times, saving travelers time at the gate while reducing flight crew costs for airlines. It is estimated that reducing delays by one minute per departure could save an average-sized airline 1,700 hours per year, reducing crew costs by $1.2 million and fuel costs by $5 million.

The Hospital Quest sought ideas that could help improve the administrative process involved with patient stays, such as coordinating communication between primary care physicians and specialists, speeding the transfer or discharge process, and automating authorization requests.

More than 3,000 ideas were submitted across both categories.

“The level of ingenuity and creativity among the participants of the Industrial Internet Quests is amazing -- each competitor has dramatically raised the bar for innovation in their relevant industries," said Anthony Goldbloom, chief executive officer at Kaggle. "Engagement for the Quests exceeded any previous contest we’ve executed. GE challenged data scientists and developers, and the resulting solutions, once implemented, will quickly have an impact on air travel and the patient experience.”

GE and Kaggle will focus next on inflight-management tools that help pilots using analytics to avoid bad weather or optimize routes to save fuel.