Ford Increases Focus on Outside Innovation With Two New Programs

6/1/12Follow @XconomyDET

Bill Coughlin, the CEO of Ford Global Technologies (which manages the intellectual property portfolio belonging to the Ford Motor Company), recently paid a visit to a group of students at Lawrence Technological University in metro Detroit. While there, a student showed Coughlin his design for a self-cleaning wheel. Coughlin says the concept was not only something he had never seen before, it was something he had never even thought of.

That’s the kind of outside innovation that Ford has made it a priority to seek out, as evidenced by its recent partnership with TechShop in Allen Park, MI and its focus on reaching out to entrepreneurs outside the automotive sector. Today, the company announced its latest initiatives to foster collaboration with inventors: The Motor City Innovation Exchange, a partnership between the automaker, AutoHarvest, and Wayne State University incubator TechTown, and the Jump Start program, which offers discounted office space in Ford Land buildings in the Allen Park and Dearborn areas to TechShop members. Today’s announcement comes just weeks after Ford announced a new incentive program that gives employees free memberships to TechShop to help them unleash their inner Henry Fords.

“There’s a race going on to find technologies that customers will really appreciate and pay for,” Coughlin says. “We can only do so much internally. If we’re receptive to ideas from outside the company, we can have faster results.”

The Innovation Exchange—which Coughlin imagines to be a physical extension of AutoHarvest, the website that connects the auto industry with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem in order to market and commercialize intellectual property—will provide a showroom where inventors can display their creations for peers or potential investors. What Couglin wants to help create is a bustling marketplace for licensing technology that can be used by automakers and other industries. He emphasizes that the purpose of the Innovation Exchange is to foster relationships between innovators and industry—even if that means one of Ford’s competitors benefits from access to the innovations that will come out of it.

TechTown will conduct office hours sessions at the Innovation Exchange and offer workshops and informal business support to participants and TechShop members. Coughlin says that TechTown has been offering “moral support” since the company first began planning its collaboration with TechShop, so a more formal collaboration was a natural next step—something TechTown CEO Leslie Smith describes as an “honor” to be a part of. “As a committed partner in the Southeast Michigan innovation network, we’re thrilled to partner with Ford Motor Company, TechShop, and AutoHarvest to accelerate the commercialization of meaningful technologies into the marketplace,” Smith said in an e-mail statement. “This announcement is just the beginning of what we know will be an impacting regional collaboration between academia, economic development, and industry.”

It’s been a busy year for Couglin, and he says with a laugh that he’s got one more thing in his “evil plan” to implement before the year is over, though he declined to go into detail. The Motor City Innovation Exchange and similar Ford undertakings to solicit and share technology developed outside the company represent a significant departure from the hyper-competitive auto industry of the past.

“The auto industry can benefit from a vibrant marketplace for technical solutions,” Coughlin says. “I think we’re a little more receptive than our competitors, and I’d like others in the industry to see the benefit of being collaborative. We can all win if this is done properly.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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