Patently Obvious

A new corporate initiative launches to spread the seeds of green innovation 

by Anne Casselman

sharing is caring – and it also might be good for business. Or so managers at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) believe. Together with multinationals such as Nike Inc. and Yahoo Inc., the outdoor recreation giant helped launch the GreenXchange earlier this year, an online network that facilitates the sharing and licensing of patents with the lofty (and hefty) goal of kickstarting innovation in sustainability. 

“This is looking into the future to really try and define how we can crack this [sustainability] thing open,” says David Labistour, MEC’s CEO, from his Vancouver office. 

Sustainable technology and practices currently suffer from duplication of effort and inefficiencies in resource consumption. By unlocking scads of patents, the GreenXchange seeks to spur innovation by helping companies repurpose existing latent technology for sustainable uses. Companies can also invest more easily in collaborative research, resting easy in the knowledge that the outcome will be available to all parties alike. 

“We need an explosion of innovation in sustainability,” says John Wilbanks, the project’s manager and vice-president of science at Creative Commons, a San Francisco-based non-profit that works to foster sharing and openness of intellectual property through the Internet using legal tools. In Wilbanks’s mind, the collective burden of planetary ailment, whether it’s greenhouse gas emissions or unsustainable resource extraction, is a shared challenge to be solved through collaboration: “and that’s what [GreenXchange] is about.” 

The idea behind the GreenXchange first came about back in 2008 when Wilbanks and colleague Joi Ito chatted with Nike’s director of sustainable business, Kelly Lauber, about Nike’s desire to share its sustainability-related patents. It was clear to Wilbanks early on that such a patent exchange should operate as a web-based commons rather than a non-profit or company.

As word of their vision spread throughout 2009, eight companies, including MEC, signed on as co-founding partners. (MEC is the only Canadian company so far.) The GreenXchange has more than $400,000 in seed capital and in excess of $600,000 in in-kind services from the co-founders; partner Inc. built the online exchange, for instance, while software developers nGenera Corp. provided the online “rooms” where patent holders and patent seekers can discuss confidential licence details. While the exchange has no staff of its own, employees from the founding partners clock hours devoted to its cause as part of their membership agreement, with most of the work being accomplished via email.

The GreenXchange has several legal tools freely available to patent holders or seekers. These include a non-assertion-for-research licence, which effectively grants researchers amnesty from patent infringement; a model-patent licence, which allows patent holders to impose revenue restrictions; and field-of-use restrictions. Nike, for example, could limit the field of use on their environmentally friendly rubber formula so that it could be used in MEC’s bicycle inner tubes but not by a competing shoe company. Or they could allow their IP to be used freely in the sustainable energy sector at large. 

There are about 450 patents on the GreenXchange, which aims to increase its membership from 10 organizations to 20 in 2010. For Labistour the exchange is a means to shrink the ecological footprint of MEC-branded products and to provide leadership in the sustainability sector. In the future, he says, MEC’s products could employ green patents found on the GreenXchange: “Hopefully, this can be used by the chemical suppliers, fabric makers – the people that are producing the raw materials that go into our products.” 

“The business rationale is that companies need to think differently about intellectual property in order to innovate, compete and participate more effectively in a failing world,” says Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics and chair of GreenXchange partner nGenera. “Sharing intellectual property is not some kind of socialism or tree-hugger, do-gooder attitude. It’s about competing, beating your competition, innovating better – building more successful companies and better value for customers.” n