“Open Sourcing” of Fuel Cell Technology: A Call to Action

“Ideas are works of bricolage.  They are, inevitably, networks of other ideas.

.. the strange thing is that the past two centuries .. wisdom about innovation has pursued the exact opposite argument .. by assuming…in the long run, innovation will increase if you put restrictions on the spread of new ideas, because those restrictions will allow the creators to collect large financial rewards from their inventions. And those rewards will then attract other innovators to follow in their path.

The problem with these closed environments is that they make it more difficult to explore the adjacent possible, because they reduce the overall network of minds that can potentially engage with a problem and they reduce the unplanned collisions between ideas originating in different fields.”

Stephen Johnson, WSJ, The Genius of the Tinkerer, September 25, 2010.

Background

During my tenure as president of a PEM fuel cell development company it occurred to me that all of the other development firms might be attempting to solve, in varying degrees, the same challenges we faced in improving bipolar plates, reducing the size and increasing the efficiency of reformers, minimizing amounts of expensive catalysts necessary, boosting electrical efficiency, etc.  If my conjecture was correct, it meant that, at least within the US industry, groups of people in 10 or 20 companies were trying to accomplish the same objectives.  Of course, they all probably believed that they were close to the Holy Grail, that their IP was superior, that their work would result in enormous returns down the road.  I suspected, however, they the differences in technology among all these companies were more likely to be infinitesimally small.

That was 12 years ago.  At a recent conference I heard the same generic issues raised, still unsolved, and in a market where we have created and dashed investor expectations on more than one occasion.  So the idea reemerged.

What if we were free to share ideas and not waste time, money and resources behind artificial walls built out of a hubris that each one of us had the silver bullet, the world beating answer, the killer app?

Open Sourcing

Certainly most people have heard about “open source” software where the basics of a software platform are available to anyone to build upon.  Not many people, though, are aware of the fact that the concept of open sourcing ideas, intellectual property and know how is neither solely related to software nor a new concept.  In fact application of this concept was crucial to the evolution of the US auto industry (Ford challenged a monopolistic patent in 1911 and freely collaborated with others through the 30’s), the advanced state of US aviation at the start of WWII (Curtiss challenged Wright’s monopolistic patents, ultimately resulting in the US forcing a settlement and a sharing of technology through WWII), and the rapid advancements in this country in semiconductors beginning in the 50’s when patents and intellectual property rights were largely ignored (see Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductors).  There are many more non-IT examples.

So What Are We Talking About and Why Do It?

I’m going to borrow heavily here from a paper written by HP[1] that aptly summarized why this makes sense to do and what the benefits might be.

The Concept

First, what are we talking about?  The following chart was constructed to graphically show how components of a software system might be merged.  Take a look at this and think “Fuel Cell Systems.”

ovals

Let’s start with the three grouped ovals.  Replace “Project” with “Company 1, 2, ..n” and replace “un-shared independently developed software” with “technology challenges common to all Companies that the Companies believe only they can solve.”  The white areas of the independent ovals are things genuinely unique to the Companies.  Now look at the single circular figure on the right.  The Companies each have their own unique qualities within the large circle of “Fuel Cell Systems” but the big black core is all of the shared IP.

The Benefits

It doesn’t take rocket science to quickly grasp what a difference this approach might make in moving the entire industry forward.  Let me paraphrase the HP paper’s summary of benefits in fuel cell terms:

  • A readily available potpourri of basic system component technology that can be built upon and used as starting point;
  • Improved quality levels of shared technology as authors’ reputations are at stake;
  • Shared, community debugging; and,
  • Faster development schedules with technology leveraged among several products.

Imagine how much reinvention of the same wheel across 20 companies could be avoided.

The Downside

Of course, there’s the downside.  In every one of these companies there is at least one key person who has inventor’s syndrome.  The affliction that says absolute and total restrictions on my intellectual property is the only path to the overwhelming array of riches I will gain when my twist on the technology gets out there, since no one else out there has anything close and they are not as smart as me.  Usually there is a lawyer appended to this person’s anatomy somewhere.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Will it work across all fuel cell technologies?  Theoretically, yes, but realistically we’d want to have many participants.  The best place to start is PEM, but SOFC could also be a contender.

The Risk

Given the current state of our business sector that is suffering from:

  • At least two and perhaps three cycles where several companies in the sector raised thoroughly unrealistic expectations within the financial community that were never achieved, resulting in very limited investor appetite in hydrogen energy;
  • A Department of Energy that seems to have dismissed fuel cells and hydrogen from its R&D agenda; and
  • A global community that is overtaking the US industry because within certain countries the functional equivalent of open sourcing is happening

It doesn’t seem there is much to lose by trying.

The Recommended Path

Form a subscription based not-for profit organization whose sole purpose is to provide real and virtual opportunities to share ideas and information and do so in a way that does not run afoul of anti-trust laws or generate IP litigation.  This can take the form of databases, conferences, workshops, wiki collaboration on the web, networking and probably 10 other ways that do not immediately come to mind.

Can it be done?

Yep. It has been done before and it continues to be done in other industries.  Wright and Curtiss are a great historical example.  So are Texas Instruments and Fairchild Semiconductors.  Many very large firms have come to embrace it, including Procter & Gamble.

Provided we have a critical mass of interest, sufficient funding to engage the proper counsel to avoid the pitfalls and manage the operation and its communications vehicles, and enough open minded company managements to make it work.

Interested?  

Call me. Gerry Runte (207( 361-7143 or email Gerry.runte@worthingtonsawtelle.com.  If there is sufficient interest we can begin to lay out a plan on how we want to pull this off.

[1] Dinkelacker, and Garg “Corporate Source: Applying Open Source Concepts to a Corporate Environment,” HPL-2001-135, May 31st , 2001

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