Diving into General Motor’s Shark Tank

Automotive News highlighted an interesting (and perhaps innovative) approach to finding breakthrough innovations which is being used by General Motors; an internal innovation competition [1]. Their annual “Research & Development Innovation Challenge” provides finalists with an opportunity to present their ideas to GM executives during a 5 to 10 minute pitch à la the popular TV show Shark Tank. The winner is granted funding and a degree of freedom in order to pursue the idea. This is certainly an unusual process which combines a scattered initiation approach with a more formal evaluation structure.

According the article, “entrants must pitch ideas that have a high degree of commercial potential in
one of six key areas” in order to succeed (advanced propulsion, connected-vehicle technologies, advanced materials, sensors, manufacturing technologies, and analytics). Drawing on concepts from the book, The Entrepreneurial Mindset, this may help innovators by providing a “ballpark” for their efforts [2]. Additionally, it ensures that the potential ventures will align with GM’s current strategy. But at the same time, too much focus on commercial potential may lead to the dreaded “short-termism” that stifles corporate entrepreneurship. Perhaps GM should split the competition into two categories: one for short-term commercial applications and another for long-term technological breakthroughs.

Unfortunately there is no mention of potential benefits (bonuses, recognition, promotion, etc.) for the contestants besides the opportunity to pursue their innovations. This leads me to wonder if innovators will be properly rewarded for their efforts – including those who did not receive funding. After all, just reaching the finals and stepping onto that stage required great courage and initiative. Furthermore, if the winning projects fail to deliver positive financial returns, will the innovators receive the same opportunities for career advancement or will they lose time and reputation in the process? These questions may determine whether this practice is truly a sustainable method for encouraging corporate entrepreneurship.

Some food for thought…

  •   What are other pros and cons of this approach?
  •   How could this competition be improved?
  •   Can this technique be used in other industries?

– Kyle DeVault

[1] R. Truett, “GM’s sharks hunt for innovations”, Automotive News, 2017. [Online]. Available: http://www.autonews.com/article/20160229/OEM06/302299967/gms-sharks-hunt-for-innovations. [Accessed: 19- Feb- 2017].

[2] R. MacGrath and I. MacMillan, The Entrepreneurial Mindset, 1st ed. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.

Introduction from Corporate Entrepreneurship

It’s such great fun teaching students who want to become intrapreneurs, and how to help companies get better at enabling innovators.  Most of our students are very early in their careers, and are pummeled with the idea of becoming entrepreneurs as soon as they set foot on campus.  So they join our Corporate Entrepreneurship course with no idea of what to expect.

Much of the course is devoted to showing them what doesn’t work.  It’s disillusioning for them, for sure.  But as we go through the different approaches to developing a sustainable capability for breakthrough innovation and corporate renewal that companies have tried over the years, students begin to understand the need for a complete management system whose purpose is to innovate in big and meaningful enough ways to enable corporate renewal.   There’s no better way to get them engaged than to have them read about breakthrough innovation and corporate entrepreneurship in the news, interview intrapreneurs or Chief Innovation Officers, and write about it.  So, I hope you enjoy this series of posts from students at RPI’s Lally school.

The Day to Day and the Dreamier Aspects of Google…and Alphabet

Great move Google…I mean Alphabet! Today’s NY Times reports that Larry Page and Sergey Brin will re-organize their company to separate the new ‘big bets’ from the ongoing operations of search.  Calico, Sidewalk, Next and Fiber, will become their own business units, along with GoogleX, the newstreams incubator, and a Finance company.  They want to model their approach after GE, Page says, which has obviously grown into new domains through acquisitions as well as organic growth and development to become a global powerhouse over the years.  But actually, it’s possible they’re following 3M’s model..a more organic model of new business creation.  It all depends on how Page and Brin think about the role of the centralized Corporate functions.  GE depends heavily on a strong Corporate Research Function, and strong corporate strategy to guide their decisions for investments. 3M allows a more free flowing ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach.  I imagine Google Glasses, driverless cars, and drones, all housed within GoogleX, could become their next new divisions.  How will that be decided?  And how will the decisions about resource allocations be made between Google and the new fast growth, non revenue generating entities?  It’s all good, and what a great next step for this company.  While Jordan Rohan, founder of Internet advisory firm Clearmeadow Partners, is quoted in one of the Times’ articles as characterizing the new CEO of Google, Sundar Pichai as being able to handle ‘the day to day and the dreamier aspects of Google,’ this organizational structure allows the same for Page, Brin and the stockholders. Now…who gets to work in the newstreams, and who gets to stay in the mainstream?

A Breakthrough Invention is not a Breakthrough Innovation

A Breakthrough Invention is not a Breakthrough Innovation

The recent news of the ‘Cured AIDS baby’1, the second person ever to be cured of AIDS brought to light a news story from 20062,3when Timothy Brown was the first.  Timothy Brown’s story is amazing, starting in 1995 when he was diagnosed HIV+. He began taking anti-retroviral therapy. While this is a common story for HIV+ patients, Brown’s was not. In 2006 Brown’s health suffered a major setback when he was diagnosed with an acute myeloid leukemia, a fairly common form of cancer. Brown underwent a round of Chemotherapy; however, this made him prone to infections.  At this point, Brown and his doctors sought a new treatment in the form of a stem cell transplant. What happened next was a breakthrough in medicine. His doctors scoured the globe for a stem cell donor who had a mutation known as CCR5, which is known to make cells immune to the HIV virus.

The CCR5 stem cell  treatment cured Brown.

Now the question you have all been asking: why am I writing about this on a Breakthrough  Innovation blog? This is easy to answer: if there has been a  cure for AIDS known for years… why hasn’t it been brought to market? You may believe that having a cure for AIDS is enough for some socially responsible person or company to pursue it for commercial development and use. But, it’s not that easy. The treatment is cost prohibitive and too difficult to be mass marketed (i.e. it requires finding a compatible donor that has the gene and then harvesting their bone marrow. On top of the cost and difficulty concerns the procedure has potential side effects that can be as detrimental to one’s health. These side effects include: surgical complications, paralysis and potentially death.

The market needs a solution that everyone can participate in, not a one of a kind situation that is only cost effective  as an AIDS cure for those who have cancer. The market needs a couple of things to more forward:

·First it needs a solution that can be simplified and that doesn’t have serious side effects, e.g. creating a viral vectors for gene therapy.

·Secondly,  it needs process innovation along with the initial invention, i.e. solutions for mass production and distribution.

·Finally it needs to make sure the customer base can afford the solution.

This cure for AIDS is a huge advancement in medicine. The next big leap is to make one that can be mass commercialized to treat those suffering from this terrible disease. I guess that’s why breakthrough innovation takes so long. There’s enormous work to be done to move from the initial opportunity to commercial reality, no matter how important the game changer is.

We are seeing people take up the challenge presented, research into turning CCR5 into a drug therapy has started. In the research paper “Establishment of HIV-1 resistance in CD4+ T cells by genome editing using zinc-finger nucleases” the scientific team has looked into the possibility of creating a gene therapy to exploit this solution.4





We’re back with thoughts on boring breakthroughs

Greetings all! It’s been a long, long time. Lois and I have been way busy with the third phase of the Radical Innovation Research program. We have visited 9 companies in 3 countries over the past year and conducted over 150 interviews. Lots to digest about roles and responsibilities for Breakthrough Innovation in large established companies. But enough about us. There’ll be more to follow as we figure out what we’re learning. Right now it’s like drinking from a firehose.

Even more exciting is what’s happening at the Lally School…our school. We have an incredible group of MBA students who are extremely interested in this whole breakthrough innovation/corporate entrepreneurship thing. They are an inspiring bunch. Some of them have asked about why this blog has stalled,…and have offered to help. So I’d like to introduce one of them, Peter Roberts from Utah. See below some thoughts on the Tesla Electric Vehicle. Let us know what you think.


The Tesla/New York Times spat this February overshadowed a great achievement in innovation. Some would say that Tesla’s model S is a radical innovation; however, they would be wrong, Thomas Parker invented the electric car in 1884. The real radical innovation from Tesla was accomplished was with the refueling stations. Tesla has already made inroads on the west coast as seen in this map. Tesla has been working to this implemented since 2011. By focusing on changing current infrastructure, Tesla is setting themselves up for success. They now aim to expand electric car potential from their lone pair of charging stations in NY and DC throughout the east coast.
In a broader sense, Tesla has opened up several possibilities for the future. By controlling both the vehicles and the charging stations, Tesla can work out pricing strategies with electricity and/or vehicles. Tesla is creating a whole new market and setting up the infrastructure for this market. The question we should all be asking is, ‘when the rest of the automakers jump on the electric bandwagon will Tesla’s infrastructure make them a dominant player in the marketplace?’.
Others seem to agree with this, see Adam Morath’s blog from 2/14/13 (http://translogic.aolautos.com/2013/02/14/opinion-tesla-versus-new-york-times-debate-misses-the-point/). Still other see adoption of the of the electric car will require an infrastructure revolution See Ben Holland post in January of this year (http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2013/01/17/how-important-charging-infrastructure-ev-adoption).

So, while electric cars are all the rage, they’re the small part of the picture. It’s the infrastructure that’ll make this happen.

Words from our visiting scholar- Suman Lodh

I am a visiting scholar at the Lally School (RPI), working on the Radical Innovation project of Dr. Gina O’Connor. I had the opportunity to attend the Corporate Entrepreneurship Conference, June 2010 at RPI. The two-day thought-provoking discussions, presentations, speeches of panel of experts…were really like giving the power of “Grabbing Lightning”. From the researchers characteristics-“Truth, Beauty and Justice” to the corporate excellence-“Shifting the Paradigm to Schumpeter 2.0”, the conference had lots to learn. However at the end of the day, a few ideas kept on striking me that how the risk of inaction (or taking care of the opportunity lost) is, in practice, looked upon by the young corporate entrepreneurs and at the same time the career issue of the entrepreneurs has enough incentive to undertake breakthrough innovation project.
CE literature suggests that the density and quality of relationship among firms and supporting institute are not sufficient to determine the innovative capabilities of a firm. My feeling is that, we need highly mobile and technically skilled entrepreneurs (apart from Scientists) to adopt the innovation strategic initiatives. In fact, to reduce the cost of information, established firms use their existing assets as long as the innovation in the industry remains incremental. But new entrants or the entrepreneurs with their new strategy of ‘recombining’ the existing technologies (controlling for their overhead costs) can introduce radical innovations in the sense that they make existing technology obsolete for greater reward.

Looking forward to attend another such conference at Lally School.

Suman Lodh
PhD Student, Department of Economics
University of Bergamo, Bergamo, Italy

Worlds apart, yet so similar: Breakthrough Innovation in two organizations

In the last couple of months we’ve had the opportunity to work with two very different organizations; both want to improve their innovation capability. These contrasts help point out that the principles of breakthrough innovation are similar across a wide variety of organizations. The first was a very large oil and gas company, concerned with technological innovations that could dramatically alter their business. They wanted to understand how to improve their breakthrough innovation capability, and so they paid us a visit back in May. What a great day, and ongoing relationship with them since. They are experiencing one very typical challenge to Breakthrough innovation: they view the issue as one of technology only. How do we find the most radical technology possible to commercialize in our current businesses? While this is a great question, it’s overly constraining. Unless companies realize that technology is just one aspect of Grabbing Lightning, they’ll never be able to commercialize the new opportunities that breakthroughs present.Business models, customer markets, organizational business unit structures will all have to be reconsidered if a company wants to properly innovate via breakthroughs.

The second organization is a Credit Union. Amazing to see a senior leader of a not-for-profit cooperative so proactive about step-change innovation. But he is. He’s designated an innovation team to find new ideas. They are experiencing another very typical challenge, though different from the one our oil and gas company exhibited. In the case of the Credit Union, all innovation is being managed the same. Incremental, evolutionary and breakthrough are all handled by the innovation team, and are all evaluated via the same criteria, and are all managed using the same processes. Secondly, while the innovation team is great at receiving and developing innovation ideas, there’s no one in the organization tasked with conducting mine experiments to see how viable they are. No incubation capability. ..until now, we hope! Distinguishing types of innovation on the spectrum of uncertainty really can make a difference. Manage them differently, and start to see the outcomes.