Notes from the Economist Ideas Economy Conference on Innovation

Posted by Gabriel-Eichler on Mar 29, 2011 1:09:22 PM

Today's blog post was contributed by Gabriel Eichler, Director of Consulting for InnoCentive.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Economist Ideas Economy Conference on Innovation at the Haas School of Business in Berkeley California. InnoCentive was the Challenge Sponsor of the event. The audience was filled with an impressively diverse set of business, government and academic leaders all focused, in one form or another, on Innovation. Some of the more recognizable presenters were:

Hal Varian – Chief Economist at Google

Henry Chesbrough – UC Berkeley – Author and Leading Open Innovation Academic

Peter Schwartz – Co-founder and Chairman of Global Business Network

Scott Cook – Founder and Chairman of Intuit

Aneesh Chopra – CTO of the United States Government

Elon Musk – Found of Paypal, Tesla and SpaceX

Jack Dorsey – Founder of Twitter

Dwayne Spradlin – InnoCentive’s CEO

Diversity Prevails was a key theme that emerged from the conference. During his bit onstage, Elon Musk spoke about his development of the Tesla all-electric high-performance automobile and the rockets developed by SpaceX. In the Q&A session that followed, an audience member asked Mr. Musk how it was that he remained so innovative on his various projects simultaneously. Interestingly, it turns out that Mr. Musk credited his innovativeness by the very fact that he was working on the two very different projects at once. He continued to explain that his most creative ideas were the result of cross fertilization between the automotive and the rocket technologies he was developing. For the InnoCentive folks in the audience, this comment was not particularly surprising for us. This statement echoes the same philosophy that we here at InnoCentive hold to be an eternal truth of innovation - diversity of perspective prevails! Our community of Solvers has a seemingly endless resource of innovative ideas because it is so diverse. When we ask Solvers to innovate on problems outside of their core expertise, they’re much more likely to be successful than someone who already works day and night in that domain. That’s why it was a chemist who solved a problem about cleaning up oil and it was a radio engineer who figured out how to predict solar flare events. Diversity wins every time.

My second story relates to the InnoCentive Challenge portion of the program. As with all of the Economist Ideas Economist conferences, we ran a Challenge on behalf of the Economist and asked our Solvers to propose new business plans that were innovative, scalable, viable and impactful. Through the 100+ submissions we received, we narrowed it down to the best four proposals and brought them to the conference for the final evaluation. That evaluation consisted of giving each of them 3 minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of 3 well respected venture capitalists and then go through a 5 minute Q&A session with the VCs. The session, referred to as the ‘Tiger’s Den’ was an absolute hit with the audience. The judges were Tim Draper, Founder and Managing Director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Chinedu Echeruo, Chairman and Founder, and Krisztina “Z” Holly, Vice Provost, Innovation, University of Southern California. They couldn’t have been a more engaged and fun bunch to have on stage. The four finalists and their ideas were as follows:

• Anjai Lal – Agro-Engine

• Alan Klanac – A true Service (Ship) Yard

• Ani Vallabhaneni – Sanergy

• Karle Schlieff – True Blue

The Solvers each stood up and gave the audience quite a show as they made their pitches. My unofficial award for the most refined pitch goes to Ani Vallabhaneni who put on quite a show as he explained the business value of his idea for building a network of public toilets through the slums of Kenya for the purpose of both improving sanitation and generating energy from the human waste. His mastery of the business opportunity was impressive, and his final note added a comical conclusion when he turned away from the judges, towards the audience and said “Now come with me and turn sh*t into gold”.

The winning Solver (we'll announce this Solver's name formally in the next few days) proposed a unique solution that many other businesses have tried to break into, but with some new twists that represent a very exciting business opportunity. After a few minutes of deliberation by the judges, who later admitted the difficulty of their choice, the winning solution was announced and the competition came to a close.

In conclusion I can say that the conference was a total blast for me and the other InnoCentive folks who attended. I encourage others to consider attending some of the future Economist Ideas Economy events such as Information in June and Human Potential in September. We’ll be there, running a special Challenge for each conference. Hope to see you there…


Topics: Challenges

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