Meeting the Innovation Challenge in a Green Future
By Mark Johnson
Companies that want to lead the way in cleantech could do worse than look to the example of Thomas Edison. The Wizard of Menlo Park didn't invent the light bulb; he invented an industry. He knew the light bulb by itself would have remained merely a curiosity. So, while inventors around the world worked only on the bulb, he conceived an entire network of generators, meters, transmission lines, and substations. Most important, he showed how all those elements could be combined into a profitable business and demonstrated its commercial viability in the carefully circumscribed market of Lower Manhattan. And he won favorable regulatory treatment to help make it possible.
In many ways, going green today is like going electric was a century ago: The challenge isn't just to invent technologies; it's to create an entirely new industry. For cleantech startups as well as established companies, Edison's approach is a blueprint for industry creation, with its four interdependent components: an enabling technology, an innovative business model, a careful market-adoption strategy, and favorable government policy. By coordinating all four elements, companies can effectively test the viability of their cleantech concepts in the right context, with sufficient scale and minimum investment.
One company that is following that path today is Better Place, with its comprehensive approach to creating a mass market for electric cars. Electric vehicles have been around for more than a century, but until Better Place's founder, Shai Agassi, came along, nobody had figured out how to bring about their mass adoption.