Guest post by Sarah Milstein, co-host of The Lean Startup Conference.
At a party in NYC recently, I was challenged by a VC to name the biggest company currently using Lean Startup practices. I think he expected me to describe a medium-sized startup or maybe some small, old-school media organization. So his eyebrows jumped when I said that GE is the largest company we know of. There are at least two companies in the world bigger than GE, so there’s room to expand. But GE is not alone among Fortune 500s. Indeed, it’s part of a large and growing group of enterprise firms incorporating Lean Startup techniques, and we’re very excited to have GE SVP and CMO Beth Comstock join us this year at The Lean Startup Conference.
Although everyone knows GE, Beth is new to many people in our community, so we’ve created a backgrounder for you. The two people who contributed to it, writer Lisa Regan and marketing coordinator Michele Kimble, both sent me notes about how interesting and impressive Beth is. Join us on December 3 to see her in person.
Beth is Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at GE, but her work defies the standard understanding of big corporate business. In a career that has moved from GE to NBC Universal and back to GE, she has brought technological innovation and agile business techniques to two of the US’s biggest legacy corporations.
As SVP and CMO at GE since 2008, Comstock is responsible for two major initiatives that use the capabilities of the corporation to identify and implement the best ideas offered by the crowd. She is the force behind the ecomagination and healthymagination programs, initiatives that tackle the environment and healthcare—two of the more pressing areas of concern in GE’s business area. She also runs GE Ventures, leading the company's efforts to partner with startups and entrepreneurs. Prior to taking on her current position at GE, Comstock was the President of Integrated Media at NBC Universal, where she took a traditional media company forward across new media platforms, heading the digital media team and shepherding the development of Hulu.com and Peacock Equity as well as the acquisition of ivillage.com. (She is also a member of Nike’s Board of Directors and Trustee president of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.)
While working within big corporations, Comstock has nonetheless pursued entrepreneurial methods—seeking out the best ideas, whatever their source, and pushing a large company like GE to adapt to a fluid and collaborative environment, rather than compressing ideas to fit a corporate model. As she told Fast Company last year, she has actively sought to shake up GE’s processes. "Our traditional teams are too slow. We're not prototyping fast enough, not innovating fast enough. We need to systematize change."
At the same time, Comstock has brought the power of a large company to bear on big problems, using a model of entrepreneurial problem-solving to take on environmental and healthcare innovation of the kind that is often left to government. “Innovation can originate from anywhere, at anytime,” Comstock has written. “To compete in the global marketplace, companies like GE need an approach to innovation that supports open collaboration and partnership, especially when dealing with big issues like the environment or healthcare that are too complicated for any one entity to solve alone.”
Enter the healthymagination project. Healthymagination is a cooperative endeavor in healthcare, which along with energy and transportation, is one of GE’s primary technological fields. The project’s intent is to find innovative approaches to improving medical outcomes worldwide, both in identifying areas that demand and are available to change, and in seeking out new ways of addressing them. These will be solutions that range from technological advancements to new delivery systems to research projects and data collection.
Breast cancer screening exemplifies the kind of complex healthcare questions that Comstock is trying to untangle, where barriers to better care are not only or even primarily technological, but involve a complex mixture of social, cultural, technological and economic factors. In Saudi Arabia, for example, where screening rates are low due to both cultural stigma around the female body and women’s fear of diagnosis, healthymagination has looked to solutions going far beyond just new equipment. “In the case of breast cancer, we can’t just show up with a mammography screening device and consider the problem solved,” Comstock has said. This is the kind of area where researchers most familiar with the community will offer the most effective new ideas, but where a company with GE’s reach and ability to deliver can bring those ideas to fruition.
If open innovation is one side of the healthymagination program, the other is “reverse innovation,” creating technology for the developing world that then becomes used in industrialized countries. The question, Comstock says, is, “How do you put resources in a market, then innovate from that market back, creating totally new offerings in healthcare and energy?” Reverse innovation means helping researchers and entrepreneurs partner with health care providers to develop immediate, deliverable solutions to specific, local problems. As Comstock writes, “Emerging markets are proving to be laboratories for the developed world—they demand the best technology at the best price point.”
The ecomagination program at GE applies similar open innovation methods to a different problem: the environment and energy use. As Comstock phrases it, “In the global energy economy, we face a chasm between nascent ideas with great promise and those that are commercially available to impact change today.”
Between ecomagination and healthymagination, Comstock has tried to go far beyond traditional corporate philanthropy. Her work takes global problems—ones that seem utterly resistant to any individual’s effort at change—and uses the power of a major corporation to leverage impact on behalf of innovative ideas.