Is That an Umbrella or a Power Plant?

The term “disruptive innovation” is quickly joining the list of meaningless buzzwords that companies use to hype their latest products. Marketing managers seem to use it to describe anything new, along with “breakthrough” and the ever-popular “revolutionary.” But true disruptive innovations have actually been clearly defined by famed Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen as technologies and developments that open untapped market segments and have the potential to upend the status quo. In order to bring attention to companies that are truly disruptive – and therefore potentially game changing – I’ve partnered with Scott Anthony, a founding partner at Christensen’s consulting firm Innosight, to bring you a series of interviews and stories on companies that we’ve identified as legitimate disruptors.

Scott and I recently spoke with Rick Hess, the CEO of a solar energy company called Konarka. Up until now, solar panels were expensive sheets of rigid silicon that had to be made in a fabrication plant. Konarka has developed flexible, portable, and disposable solar cells by spraying or printing a layer of organic material on to a roll of plastic. This technology allows Konarka to place solar panels in places that were previously impossible. In other words, Konarka’s panels are tapping new markets instead of competing against incumbent solar panel manufacturers – the true definition of a disruptive technology.

To better illustrate how Rick has positioned Konarka as a disruptor, we asked him for a concrete example of how the technology is being used. Rick said the company is currently working with a maker of picnic table umbrellas to develop a true solar shade. Imagine sitting at an outdoor café and being able to plug your laptop into the umbrella shaft while the open canopy generated electricity. The umbrellas can be placed anywhere, with no need to run an extension cord or connect to a wall socket. In this application, Konarka has no competition. Silicon solar panels cannot be used this way and the umbrellas can be placed in areas where grid power is not available. Under these circumstances, the standard efficiency measurement of cost per kilowatt-hour become irrelevant. In fact, by positioning his company to attack and enable new markets with his flexible solar panels, Rick’s primary competitor is the battery. And when compared to the cost of using batteries, Konarka’s solar cells come out far ahead.

As a truly disruptive technology, Konarka’s opportunities are almost limitless. Scott asked what other avenues they were pursuing and Rick explained, “The biggest challenge we face is picking between different opportunities. We get 50 random calls a week. We don’t market, we just answer the phone. I tell my people our job is not to create opportunities but to filter them.”

If you are interested in truly disruptive innovations, keep up with Fast Company Buzz as Scott and I continue to identify and interview the companies that will change our world. To learn more about disruptive technologies check out Scott's latest book, The Innovator's Guide to Growth.  This series will return as the schedule permits.

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