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The Case for Giving Away IP: Entrepreneurialism & Collaborative Problem Solving at RMI

By Ned Harvey

When ClimateWire profiled RMI co-founder and chief scientist Amory Lovins earlier this year, it quoted former head of the Central Intelligence Agency R. James Woolsey. “If he patented everything he’s come up with,” Woolsey said of Lovins, he “could be the CEO of an extraordinarily large company, but that’s not Amory; that’s not what he does. He plants ideas and then goes on and plants some more.”

Indeed, RMI’s brand of entrepreneurial, collaborative problem solving flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says you lock down your intellectual property. Instead, we give most of ours away.

Why? The answer is simple. RMI and our supporters want the insights and benefits resulting from our work to accrue to everyone, everywhere. Our solutions are for public benefit. We create intellectual property and transform it into intellectual social property—our ideas are public by design, given away by nature, with dissemination built in via our network of collaborators and other partners. We want solutions to be adopted, not shelved.

Since our founding 31 years ago, RMI has advocated that the power of innovation and entrepreneurialism can solve the nation’s and the world’s energy challenges. And we believe our approach can expand solutions far beyond our boundaries, letting the market for great ideas serve as the true catalyst for change in the world. This model works.

For example, with an aspiration to transform the auto industry and reduce (and eventually eliminate) its dependence on oil, RMI created in 1990–91 the innovative Hypercar concept, which won the 1993 ISATA Nissan Prize and a decade later a World Technology Award. RMI soon founded the Hypercar Center to explore the technical feasibility and commercial reality of building a hyper-efficient automobile that could revolutionize the auto industry. This vehicle was a radical idea at the time, featuring ultra-light construction with an aerodynamic body using advanced composite materials, low-drag design, and hybrid drive.

Initially we explored and validated the concept in private discussions with automakers. But when it needed to be spread more widely and pursued more aggressively, in 1993 we placed the Hypercar concept in the public domain. We wanted the ideas to proliferate in the market, and figured that, like Linux software, it would be adopted faster if it were free. The effort was well publicized to ensure anyone could learn about RMI’s work and engage with our innovations. The concept incubated in and around RMI and its Hypercar Center for five years.

Then, with these ideas freely out in the public arena, RMI helped bring them to the market, spinning off Hypercar, Inc. in 1999 to further develop the Hypercar concept. By 2010, three automakers—BMW, Volkswagen, and Audi—announced volume production by 2013 of the kinds of carbon-composite electrified autos RMI has long advocated. BMW’s midvolume i3 and sporty i8 are carbon fiber plug-in hybrid electric cars. VW’s XL1 carbon fiber plug-in hybrid two-seater, which has been dubbed the “world’s most efficient” car by some, may be the most literal realization of the original Hypercar concept, with key parameters closely matching our early-1990s analyses. Audi’s production goal slipped, but its Crosslane Coupe concept—unveiled publicly last year—did show a carbon-fiber plug-in hybrid SUV rated at over 200 mpg.

Most importantly, the principles behind the Hypercar design—ultralight, ultrastrong, aerodynamic, carbon fiber construction—are increasingly becoming commonplace throughout the auto industry.

Today as RMI works to bring the Reinventing Fire roadmap to reality we are deeply engaged in industries ripe for change and where the proliferation of innovative ideas and business models is more important than ever. Increasingly we find ourselves as a catalyst for the promotion of collaboration and “coopetition” between innovators and incumbents alike to bust the barriers that stand in their way to a brighter energy future. With RMI playing a crucial leading role, we are once again reliant on intellectual social capital to solve the challenges before us.

RMI’s ambitious Electricity Innovation Laboratory (e-Lab) is a powerful case in point. It is a model for open and collaborative innovation across the electricity sector. e-Lab is a living laboratory convened and led by RMI, where electricity industry leaders—friends, competitors, and adversaries—can safely and boldly engage to explore the challenges and opportunities facing the electricity industry, and collectively innovate and experiment to create a cleaner, more resilient, secure, and thriving energy future for us all. From new business models that help utilities, third-party service providers, and customers capture the true values and costs of distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar, to making the soft costs of solar PV lower, we are as committed as ever to collaborating with the right stakeholders and key players, to developing breakthrough solutions, and most importantly, to putting those solutions on the table for public consumption.

But we cannot succeed without the crucial generous support of our donors. In today’s economy, long-time incumbents are facing threats from innovative, disruptive startups. Those startups are backed by venture capital that seeks a strong return on investment to exploit proprietary products and services.

RMI doesn’t work that way. Our return on donors’ investment accrues to society as a whole, not to private individuals looking to build their personal equity and reap robust financial dividends. To be sure, our work yields financial and other dividends as well—remember that Reinventing Fire outlines a path to a future built on clean, secure, resilient efficiency and distributed renewables, while supporting a 158-percent bigger economy at a $5 trillion savings. To get there, though, we need investors—donors—who share our vision that through intellectual social property—by giving away our IP—we can do the most good in the world for the most people.

Ned Harvey is COO and head of development for RMI.


Image copyright of RMI.

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