GE has always focused on innovation. Founded by Thomas Edison in 1892, it is often referred to as the world’s oldest startup.

Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt has been lauded for transforming GE into a digital-industrial company, connecting machines and businesses to the cloud with Predix, its operating system for the Industrial Internet. And that relentless drive to innovate is in full force at GE Power, where the goal is to transform the power industry and make power more affordable, reliable, accessible, and sustainable – before the startups do.

But in order to disrupt the power industry and assure their own survival, they can’t go it alone. Hao Dinh, a self confessed experience junkie and professional skateboarder, is currently spearheading an initiative to transform GE Power into an innovation powerhouse.

In preparation for his talk during Intrapreneurship Conference Toronto, we sat down with him to ask about how he and his team approach co-innovation with customers and competitors, and what intrapreneurs need in order to effect real, meaningful change – now and in the future.


GE Power is on a mission to disrupt the power industry – where are you on that journey?

We’re never going to be done disrupting because once you get comfortable, that’s when you should get scared. We’ve gotten to a good point now where we are disrupting with our customers, meaning we are partnering with our power customers, utility customers in the US to co-innovate together.

It’s been extremely beneficial compared to the past: we’d think that we knew what the answer was and what an innovation would be, produce something, a service or a product, and then find out later after we spent millions of dollars that the customer didn’t want it or it didn’t satisfy their pain point. So we’ve gotten very good in the past three years both in educating our customers and letting our customers educate us on how to work together and co-innovate together.


So far, what has worked and what has not worked in terms of co-innovating with customers?

The biggest obstacle – and once you get past this obstacle then it becomes much easier – is deciding who owns the IP.

Let’s take the example of big data and advanced analytics: GE has our advanced analytics platform called Predix, but our customers have the big data, all the data they’ve collected through the years running their power plants. So in order for us to have powerful analytics that forecasts when there could be possible failures in certain assets, you need a combination of the Predix platform and the data the customer has. So once both parties realized that we really relied on each other here, we got together and decided to share the IP.

If there’s costs associated with developing it, then why don’t we share some of that cost; if some revenue is generated from the results of these analytics, then also why don’t we share some of the revenue. So we’re collaborating not just on the innovation side, but also on the business model. That’s worked really well.

We’ve also been involved in something relatively new, that I personally think is the next generation of innovation. It’s called cross industry innovation. A company called IDEO is bringing together companies from different industries – financing companies, energy companies, health insurance providers – to co-innovate in specific areas.

For example in healthcare, how can blockchain AI and VR disrupt the healthcare industry? By having people from different industries, say finance, come in and give their perspective on how AI will disrupt the healthcare industry is very insightful.

We’ve learned that if you bring together a whole bunch of people from the same industry and you ask them to innovate, they’ll pretty much talk about the same things. But if you bring in people that are outside of your industry, the stuff they come up with wouldn’t be anything that you would ever have thought of because you’re so biased toward your particular ways.

Innovation is moving towards not just innovating with your customers, but innovating and learning and doing cross-innovation across different industries.


Where do you think this will go in terms of organizational borders for you?

What we’re trying to do in the energy industry, and what our customers are trying to do in the utility spaces, is figure out how not to be an energy company and how not to be a utility company. We hear about companies that are totally disrupting themselves because they know that if they don’t do it then someone else will, right?

Car manufacturers, for example, are saying that they’re not going to be producing cars in the future, they’re not going to be selling cars – they’re going to provide transportation as a service. That’s why I think cross-industry innovation is so important, because if you don’t go outside of your industry and see what other people are doing and how, you’re never going to know what space you should target.

In the power industry, we’re learning that for the industry to survive, we also need to work with our competitors. We’re all aware that AI is going to disrupt the energy industry as a whole. So in order for us to help the industry, we are having conversations about how we as an industry can leverage AI to solve our customer’s issues. We’re not giving away IP, but we are discussing use cases, learning from each other around what technologies we’ve used that worked and haven’t worked.

We want to advance the industry – we want to advance and grow our own corporations, of course, but if the industry doesn’t survive, none of our corporations will survive.


What’s the role of intrapreneurs in this shift?

We’re still in the very early stages. Right now we’re doing pockets of experiments, we’re seeing results and we’re bringing more and more of the GE mothership into that conversation. So we’re not there yet. But the biggest driver for us, really, is because three of our biggest customers, Exelon, Southern Company, and Duke Energy, they are doing this. They are reaching out to CITI, to Nasdaq, to understand how to disrupt their industry.

Our role is to be part of that conversation, so when our customers sit down with CITI and talk about how they can use blockchain to disrupt the energy industry, we as intrapreneurs need to be at that table because that tells us the direction our customers are going towards. It also gives us insights into where we need to build our internal capabilities.

We didn’t know that blockchain would be such a hot item, for example, until our customers started talking about it. So now we have hired people within GE that have blockchain expertise, because our customers are having that conversation.


GE is famous for its FastWorks program. How have you and your team benefited from that?

FastWorks is a mindset that has become the norm in GE. It’s an innovation framework, yes, but most importantly it helps you think differently, it helps you think like an entrepreneur.

At GE we’re educating all of our intrapreneurs on the FastWorks mindset. Having that type of fundamental thinking, understanding how to think like an entrepreneur, is really helpful when you’re trying to understand how emerging technologies can disrupt your business, and also how they can ultimately benefit your business.

One of the most important learnings we got from that was validating quickly. Through FastWorks you go out and you validate in the market quickly. So if we wanted to do something in blockchain, we go out into the market and we validate first, and the best validation is to have a conversation with our customers, helping them figure out how they’re going to use blockchain.


What makes you a good intrapreneur?

My greatest asset, I think, is the fact that I’m a curious person. I’ve had a chance to work at a lot of the GE businesses, both on the capital side, which is our financial services businesses, and our industrial organizations. I also had a stint working in our media business when we owned NBC Universal.

So I would say you want to look for a person that is curious. The mindset of an entrepreneur, overall, is grounded in curiosity – to not be stagnant and complacent with where you are. Even though you might be #1 in the world today, you need to always be curious, wondering what else you can do to ensure you stay #1. You need to be curious enough to wonder and ask and research what other companies are doing, especially startups, that can disrupt you.

One of our big realizations has been that our biggest competitors in the future aren’t going to be our current competitors today.

Our biggest future competitors are going to be these scrappy startups that can move fast, that can get money from VC’s and that can go to our customers and show them a solution before we can. So that’s why we’re making sure that we’re putting people like myself into these intrapreneurial roles, where we’re curious and we’re willing to try things.


Where do you see yourself headed in the next 3-5 years?

I would say that if intrapreneurs can keep up the energy associated with continuously learning new things, then we will stay relevant. We’ve all seen the reports of AI and robotics replacing humans, right? I have read of AI out there that can help you identify which innovation projects you should keep and which ones you should kill, and that’s a very key part of my responsibilities, so it’s getting close, it’s getting very close.

But, something else I’ve read over and over is that a robot, or AI, cannot replace creativity and curiosity. So my game plan, and the game plan all intrapreneurs and potential intrapreneurs need, is to keep on developing curiosity and the ability to think creatively.

And to always look for opportunities to collaborate. Because whatever you’re trying to achieve, you’re best off being joined by many others.