FiveQsWith_MattSan Francisco-based Brightidea offers online tools to help companies crowdsource innovation from inside and outside their payrolls. Brightidea’s platform powered this summer’s GE Ecomagination Challenge, a $200 million innovation experiment where businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators and students shared their best ideas on how to build the next-generation power grid. We chatted with Brightidea founder and CEO Matt Greeley about open innovation and the role independent inventors play in helping companies find innovative new products and solutions.

ID: What’s your take on open innovation?

MG: The not-invented-here philosophy has seen better days. People are realizing there’s a ton of smart people out there and they’re foolish not to bring in ideas from the outside.

ID: So I’m hearing you say open innovation isn’t a hoax or fad, but can you comment on the wide array of approaches big companies take to accepting ideas from outside?

MG: It’s almost a religious battle and there are forces on both sides. Apple is very anti-open innovation. There are companies that are very successful with that approach. Procter & Gamble is very successful at open innovation. I think it has stats showing that 25 percent of all its products come from external ideas.

There are people on both sides of the argument. But that argument misses a whole piece of the pie. Many talk about intellectual property and patents and technology transfer. There’s a whole spectrum of ideas that are below that.

Adobe runs our WebStorm software as a public portal for adding features to its products. Anyone in the world can submit an idea to Adobe. That idea may be a feature inside the next version of one of Adobe’s products. That idea may not have a patent. But it’s providing improvements to the product for the end user.

I think there will be more ideas transferred from Point A to Point B in features and enhancements. And there’s a massive market opportunity in helping companies enhance innovation.

ID: What are some of the roadblocks to innovation?

MG: Most companies won’t get their arms around open innovation from the outside until they realize what’s on the inside. So there are cultural and institutional roadblocks. If their approach is ad hoc or if they’re using paper-based tools, there’s definitely a maturity level that needs ramping up.

ID: What are some of the elements needed to grease the skids of innovation?

MG: If you want a fluid exchange of ideas, you need a stronger, more efficient intellectual property regime. It’s important to our competitiveness as a nation that we work through this. The state of software patents is a mess. It takes too long. There’s an asymmetry of getting and defending a patent. This could go the way of FedEx. I mean, the U.S. Postal Service wasn’t keeping up and the postal service was privatized. It could come to the point where there’s a privatization of the IP regime.

ID: Wow. Never heard that one before. Might make for an interesting article down the road. What’s your favorite invention?

MG: Paper or pen and paper. It’s a meta invention. It supports more inventions. How many inventions were first conceived on paper? I always look for meta inventions or ask myself, ‘What’s the more important thing I can work on?’


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Editor’s note: This article appears in the November 2010 print edition.