From now until March 1st, General Electric is taking suggestions from the peanut gallery—businesses, entrepreneurs, inventors and students—in hopes of discovering the next big thing in home energy efficiency. GE’s Ecomagination Challenge is a $200 million experiment in crowdsourcing the best way to build the next-generation power grid.
Behind the Challenge, Matt Greeley sees a power grid of another kind forming. He calls it, "the innovation grid," and his company, San Francisco-based Brightidea, is taking its place as purveyor of online tools to facilitate the flow of new ideas and help companies capture them, whether they come from staff or strangers.
Indeed, GE’s is just one of more than 300 companies using Brightidea’s Facebook-style software platform. Bosch, American Express, Adobe, Cisco and others, all monitor the social process of innovation from concept to cash with their on-demand innovation management platform.
As founder and CEO of Brightidea, Greeley’s no stranger to building a leading-edge tech business. He’s a computer engineer who also studied creativity and marketing at Stanford University. And he did time in the trenches of a hedge fund before starting up Silicon Valley enterprise software provider Alyanza Software. Just before launching Brightidea in 1999, Greeley helped Wrenchead.com raise over $100 million in venture funding.
Now Greeley tells Fast Company how innovation contests can go beyond buzz to bring unexpected, workable, cost-effective solutions to market and why companies should be open to ideas from everywhere—even from their stock boys.
FAST COMPANY: You’ve said innovation may be the "killer app" in the world of social software, but when did you first become aware of the potential crowdsourcing had for innovation?
MATT GREELEY: I started Brightidea in a rented apartment in Menlo Park, California in 1999. At the time we were looking at businesses like eBay, and thinking what if we could make corporate R&D as efficient and transparent as eBay. That idea—to create a marketplace for ideas over the internet—would eventually change the way companies develop new products and, ultimately, change the way organizations work. We weren’t trying to latch on to a trend. We wanted to be the change we wanted to see in the world.
How well do you think GE has implemented the winning ideas of the Ecomagination Challenge?
I am blown away by how quickly GE has been able to identify the best ideas and start executing investments. They started in July and closed the first round in September 2010. They have already invested over $50 million dollars into projects from the first Challenge. Compare that with Google taking two years to announce the winners of the their 10^100 Project and I’d say GE is setting a new pace.
What impact has the Challenge had to date?
We have plenty of metrics: number of ideas, number of teams submitting, number of countries, but I believe the real impact will be the mainstream recognition that anyone, anywhere with an great idea, can gain access to top tier venture capitalists and the power of GE’s on global distribution to fast track it to reality.
What changes have you made to Brightidea’s software to make it easier for GE and others to use?
Right now we are focused on making our software more social. Facebook has proven us that social networking can be fun and addictive, not it’s time to see if social software can be productive, and create value for business.
How does Brightidea innovate internally, and how important is your leadership to help foster that creativity?
We are constantly "dogfooding," which is to say we use our own tools internally. We run our software for a year before we release it to market. We take the raw tech and make it more compatible for daily use. In fact, everyone checks into our activity feed many times a day. I see my job as setting a vision, and holding people to world class standards. I believe in the Steve Jobs model of leadership. I’m like a tough football coach and make them do an extra lap. I am the defender of the brand and design of the product.
How do you determine what are good and bad ideas and have you ever pushed aside an idea that you’ve come to regret?
So much goes into evaluating an idea. Is there a market? What is the competitive landscape? Is it the right timing? It can’t be reduced to an algorithm. If it could, Google would have done that. I’ve made thousands of mistakes, but I like to think I’ve learned from most of them. I think the greatest risk is not taking one.
What was your very first job (not as an adult) and do you think that experience influenced your professional life and goals?
In high school I worked at Staples, which gave me a discount on all the supplies I needed to start my first business. [laughs] Moving cases of paper and surrounded by Post-its, I think some of these ideas started to bud. Anyone can have an idea, but there were not a lot of conduits [to be heard]. I didn’t think we had a suggestion box, but for instance, we could have optimized how we brought filing cabinets out to peoples’ cars. If [management] just looks at that person as a stock boy, you don’t see their potential.
Cloud computing and mobile technology will certainly have a great impact on crowdsourcing and generating innovation. Can you see beyond that technology yet and predict what might be the next big thing?
I believe those technologies are coming together to form, what we call, "the Innovation Grid." Where if you have a surplus of ideas you push them onto the grid and if you need new ideas you pull them off. If you look closely, you can see people building parts of this Innovation Grid in all different places from start-ups like KickStarter and 99Designs to established companies doing open innovation like P&G and GE. The internet in the 21st century is becoming what the factory line was to the 20st century: it is where work will get done. I think that’s a really big idea.