Everybody in the Pool of Green Innovation
A POPULAR children’s song has a refrain — “the more we get together the happier we’ll be” — that may sound like a simplistic formula for solving the complex challenges of climate change and sustainability. But if any area is ripe for sharing and collaboration among organizations, it’s green innovation.
“We all want to save the planet, and the problems are bigger than any one firm, sector or country,” says Dr. Sarah Slaughter, coordinator of the M.I.T. Sloan Sustainability Initiative. In that spirit, several major corporations have taken inspiration from the open-source software movement and are experimenting with forums for sharing environmentally friendly innovations and building communities around them. The first such effort, the Eco-Patent Commons, was started in January 2008 by I.B.M., Nokia, Pitney Bowes and Sony in collaboration with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
The concept is straightforward: Companies pledge environmental patents to the commons, and anyone can use them — free.
Many patented environmental technologies are not strategic, so sharing maximizes the social benefit without sacrificing competitive advantage, says Wayne Balta, vice president of corporate environmental affairs and product safety at I.B.M. For instance, I.B.M. contributed a recyclable cardboard packaging insert that requires less fossil fuel to create and transport than the foam inserts that are now commonly used.
Other examples include a DuPont method for better detecting pollution in soil, air or water by using a microorganism that produces light when exposed to a pollutant. There are also methods from Xerox for removing toxic waste from contaminated groundwater, as well as a cleaning technique for semiconductor wafers from I.B.M. that uses ozone gas and eliminates chemical contaminants that result from other processes.
By assembling these patents in one easily accessible location — anyone can search through them on the council’s Web site — the hope is to encourage their widespread adoption, particularly in the developing world. Since its start, the commons has grown to 100 patents from 31, with 11 companies now participating.
Although there are no formal mechanisms for tracking who has used the commons, participating companies are sometimes contacted by users. For instance, Mr. Balta said that Yale had put into effect an I.B.M. method for decreasing the use of hazardous solvents in its quantum computing device research.
The Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization that previously developed licensing programs to help in sharing creative and scientific content, is also planning to branch out into the environmental arena.
In collaboration with Nike and Best Buy, it plans to start a sharing initiative, the Green Xchange, in early 2010. The program will include both patented technologies and forums for continuing exchange of innovations such as Best Buy’s system for rating the sustainability of a supply chain. Companies that contribute patents to the Green Xchange will have the option of charging users a fixed annual licensing fee and can also restrict any licensing by rivals or for competitive use. In addition, even if no annual fee is charged, patent users must register so there is a record of who is using what technology.
Though more complex than that of Eco-Patent Commons, the structure of Green Xchange will yield greater numbers of high-quality inventions, says John Wilbanks, GreenXchange coordinator and vice president for science at Creative Commons.
“We don’t depend on altruism,” Mr. Wilbanks says. “This system helps the environment while enabling a firm to make money from patents in applications outside its core business.”
For instance, Nike’s air-bag patent for cushioning shoes is crucial to its core shoe business, but may have environmental benefits in other industries — perhaps in prolonging the useful life of tires. Green Xchange could enable Nike to license the air-bag technology selectively to noncompeting companies.
ACCORDING to Kelly Lauber, a global director in Nike’s Sustainable Business and Innovation Lab, sharing technology can have tremendous environmental impact. By sharing its water-based adhesive technology and working with footwear makers, Ms. Lauber estimates that average levels of environmentally harmful solvents used by Nike’s suppliers have decreased to less than 15 grams per pair of shoes from 350 in 1997.
Perhaps the biggest upside of Green Xchange may come from the development of communities that collaborate in innovation and the exchange of ideas. To encourage that kind of interaction, Salesforce.com will provide a search engine, making it easy to find patents. And collaboration platforms from companies like 2degrees and nGenera should make it easy to identify companies with common interests.
Despite the obvious advantages, sharing patents isn’t as easy as it might sound.
“Numerous features of the intellectual property system, particularly the ability of companies to claim large swaths of technology through patents, play havoc with collaborative efforts,” says Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School.
Henry Chesbrough, the executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, says it is surprisingly hard to give away technologies. “If it is not done carefully,” he said, “the companies that use a donated technology might find themselves liable for infringement of another company’s patent.”
Both the Eco-Patent Commons and the Green Xchange pose organizational challenges for participating companies.
“Deciding which patents to pledge or license to a commons,” says Andrew King, a professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, “requires that the legal counsel, R.& D. staff, business unit and corporate sustainability groups all work together, and most organizations just aren’t set up for that.”
Weaving corporate togetherness, it seems, isn’t so easy — though green innovations offer many more reasons to try.