GE's Chief Innovation Officer Is Ready to Try Something New
BARCELONA—General Electric hasn't had the best year. The veteran multinational corporation's stock prices plummeted into a "falling knife" and recent financial hits have re-ignited talks of a breakup. Longtime CEO Jeffrey Immelt stepped down last year and was succeeded by John Flannery, who is tasked with righting the ship.
Flannery has cut jobs and costs as part of a broad turnaround effort, but one of his first major staffing moves was to promote Sue Siegel to the role of GE's first-ever Chief Innovation Officer.
Siegel has spent the past four years as CEO of the company's venture capital arm, GE Ventures. She helped launch GE Ventures in 2013 and has spearheaded investments in more than 100 companies across advanced manufacturing, energy, healthcare, artificial intelligence and analytics, robotics and the Internet of Things, and beyond.
She also has more than 30 years of venture capital experience in Silicon Valley. Siegel spent time in the pharmaceutical industry and used her biomedicine and digital health background to help launch GE's Healthymagination program. She also sits on more than a dozen boards, including the National Venture Capital Association and the Rand Corporation.
Leading innovation across GE is an imposing mandate. She must accelerate and develop GE's long-term innovation strategy across a vast asset portfolio while leading GE Ventures. GE's business units span everything from aviation and manufacturing to power, renewable energy, transportation, and digital services.
How does Siegel plan to manage all of this? PCMag caught up with her at Mobile World Congress, where Siegel is part of a keynote panel on automation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Siegel was candid about the challenges and opportunities of innovating within GE. She talked about preparing for our automated future, bringing her VC experience to the role of Chief Innovation Officer, and why she believes Silicon Valley is finally turning a corner on gender equality and diversity.
PCMag: Let's start with why you're here at Mobile World Congress. You're part of a keynote panel on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and how automation and smart services are changing the world. First off, how exactly would you define the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Sue Siegel (SS): The Fourth Industrial Revolution is all about the convergence of technology. It ranges from AI to blockchain to augmented reality, cloud, and mobile; all of it connected. I think that for the world, and certainly for the likes of an industrial company like GE, it's about taking various combinations of technology and applying them to true solutions where there are problems to be solved. Either to create new value, unlock productivity, or really drive new jobs and opportunities that haven't been there before. Now is the chance for us to be able to take these opportunities and apply them to create the industrial company of the future.
PCMag: GE's businesses touch on digital automation across so many different areas. Where are you seeing automation have the most pronounced effect right now, and what areas do you think we'll see the most profound impact and disruption from automation in the long run?
SS: The world of additive [manufacturing] is a big example. And it's one where GE has embraced this for many, many years. A lot of folks don't know this, but some of the first work in additive manufacturing was done at GE in the '60s. There are papers written by GE Labs researchers way back when around additive technology.
So when we think about what's next, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it's a combination of not only all of the technology opportunities we've got, but learning how to combine them through business models. It's also about knowing the balance of mixing inside and outside talent in ways that potentially weren't done before, which is the GE equity investing team. We've been able to invest in about a hundred startups across a range of different types of technology. One area that we invest in heavily is this world of automation and improving what we call brilliant factories; smart, connected, and automated factories.
For example, we've invested in a company called Rethink Robotics out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that's all about collaborative robots or "cobots." For a long time, robotics is something you had to cage because of the potential human danger from their sheer force or lack of sensor technology. Cobots are not only sensor-based, but able to sit alongside a human right on the product line. You can intersperse them as you need and train it without having to code to be able to perform a certain process or system task.
That's one example. Another is augmented reality applications that really augment the worker, which we've done particularly in our GE Aviation unit and a number of other plants.
A third way is through a team called New Business Creation. You can consider it like an incubator, forming companies from scratch, combining technologies from our global research centers with software and analytics expertise. We hire from within GE and from outside, to create a new company as an independent entity and scale it.
To your question of automation, we've done that with Avitas Systems, which applies a combination of technologies to industrial problems. Avitas uses drone technology combined with image acquisition combined with cloud and remote analytics applying AI to that image data. We've been doing this first and foremost around our oil and gaskets, flare stacks, pipelines, and all sorts of degrading assets that allow you now to do a tremendous amount of inspections. One major customer of ours has taken the process of inspecting oil stacks in a plant from 40 days to five days.
PCMag: Let's move on to your role as GE's Chief Innovation Officer. You start in the job last October, at a time in the company's history where innovation is maybe more important than ever for a veteran multinational corporation dealing with consistently falling stock prices and rekindled breakup rumors. Developing and accelerating GE's long-term innovation strategy seems a daunting task. How do you tackle that kind of a mandate?
SS:[laughing] Oh Rob, it's too early in the morning. But it's an excellent question, and one that I have to say is still in formation in terms of being able to concretely answer it in a couple of sentences.
I will say that [GE CEO] John Flannery really recognized that we are in a different time in this world. Everybody recognizes this incredible disruption happening with technology and entrepreneurs. It needs to be a part of the solution, of which GE is [part of] and not separate. That's number one. Two, John understood and I fundamentally believe that innovation isn't something that happens in any one department in a company. Innovation is a discipline and should be deep in everything you do, from processes, to thinking, to people ,to the way you go about patenting, etc.
Part of my role is to help shape that. GE has never had a Chief Innovation Officer's role per se in the past. So even within GE, people are trying to understand what does this fully mean? My belief is it means being able to work across GE in the various industries we're working in and really understand the ways innovation is happening across the company. Pick them out. It could be in HR. It could be in legal. It could be in the new ways we're applying business models around technology, monetizing the products we already have on our shelves in a new way. It can be invention coming out of our global research lab. Across the board, I think there are opportunities to show this is the culture of GE. This is in our DNA. It's how we operate.
PCMag: You've also spent the last several years as the CEO of GE Ventures in Silicon Valley, investing in startups across healthcare, energy, software and analytics, advanced manufacturing, and beyond. It's still targeted investment, but of a different kind. Do you see GE Ventures as an extension or a blueprint for the kind of work you're now doing as Chief Innovation Officer? How do you think that role prepared you for this one?
SS: The other part of my job is what've done in GE Ventures, investing in about 100 companies now over the last four years. We created new companies and our new Business Creation Group, but the other group we managed is a licensing group, where we started to do something new, and the licensing world started to take notice.
GE has 58,000 patents. We took our [intellectual property] and instead of just doing the classic licensing model with royalties attached, we thought: "Hold on a second. This is a strategic asset." Just like an entrepreneur who takes an idea and starts a company, our licensing team worked with our ventures and business creation teams to essentially do just that. We've formed, I believe, nine companies already through this methodology. There are a number of different ways to utilize what is a treasure trove of IP sitting on our shelves. Now we're starting companies to say "let's take this jewel and do something more with it," and it's turned into some creative monetization models. When John saw what we were doing in licensing, he told us to scale it much bigger, and in a way where the culture and processes are imbued within GE itself.
We want to partner with the entrepreneurial ecosystem even more. And last but not the least, we want the ability to see the future a bit more and understand the processes that entrepreneurs use within GE.
PCMag: I want to ask you about healthcare tech in particular, given your deep expertise in the field. You've help launch and invest in a number of cutting-edge digital health and biomedical companies and sit on the boards of more than half a dozen corporations and organizations in the space.
What are some of the digital health trends and biomedical technologies you're watching closely right now? What has the potential to really improve human lives?
SS: The advent of sensor-based technologies and wearables connecting the individual to the cloud. We always thought of healthcare as patient driven, but now it's becoming consumer-driven. For the first time, health in an individual through sensor and performance-based data is available anyplace, anywhere, anytime.
I think you're also going to see much more advancements as it relates to prediction of healthcare. We're doing a lot of work in AI and images, so that you can actually predict what you're seeing from all of the images that we've already collected. Forr example, to augment what the radiologist sees.
There's also the notion of utilizing VR technology for training; training for surgeons before they actually conduct surgery. They're doing this at Stanford, the actual picture of a heart that you can see in 3D and look at it in many different dimensions to get practice before you ever conduct open heart surgery. The notion of VR for education is being used in training across medical schools now, and you're seeing that more and more.
PCMag: I think it's telling that you're staying on as GE Ventures CEO in tandem with your CIO role. GE Ventures can sometimes serve as a way for GE to double-down on its investments or to turn a supplier or partner into an asset. Companies like Upskill come to mind. Is that an avenue you plan on utilizing going forward? Bringing in outside innovation through startups and VC investment to revitalize areas of the corporation? How do you see your dual roles synergizing toward shared goals?
SS: Ten years from now, you and I will both know a better answer, the right answer. But I can give you what I think is an evolving answer. In the past, if we invested in a company, we would find ways to big joint ventures or find a way to absorb it as part of a much more formalized process. Now, part of what's expected is that these portfolio companies of ours not only show us a bit of the future from which we can learn, but also provide a way to partner. We don't have to own it all. Where we can be part of the future? Or where can it can help us either unleash productivity internally through products and services, or help distribute their solutions worldwide?
I think what you were partially teasing at is that it gives us an extension of innovation that is beyond ourselves. When you ask about laying out a blueprint, and I want to dissect that a little bit.
My sense is the pace of change is only increasing. It will never be as slow in the future as it is today. When we think about where everything is headed, there's lot of inherent learning from being part of a space. For example, in the gas or energy business, or our healthcare business, or aviation, you just learn it because your customers are telling you their problems. But with the pace of technological change being what it is, our blueprint going forward is to access that entrepreneurial ecosystem. You must. The companies that learn how to do it best, how to partner best, are going to be the ones that adapt best for the future. I think that's the journey that GE's been on.
PCMag: Over these first several months in the job, what areas of the company have you been focusing on, or identifying particularly fertile ground for innovation? Or has it been more about changing the culture?
SS: What I've been trying to do is really understand the state of innovation across GE, first and foremost. What I'm also being asked to do is to take what we've done over the last five years from GE Ventures and scale that into more of the organization, even more broadly than we've started to do. Because in the scheme of everything at GE, five years is a small amount of time. We've invested in 100 startups, we have about 50 percent of those startups have relationships with some part of our businesses.
We're looking across the board, where are innovations that can happen? Be it in human resources, in global operations, in supply chain. How do we take those and make sure there's best practice across our core areas? That's something I've been working as well, to really scale those kind of innovations across the board.
Something I think we've brought to the equation even more so is this VC mindset. Venture capital brings experimentation, taking risks, and the ability to really be externally focused and bring in those kind of disruptions. It's about being willing to take risks in ways that weren't allowed before. Think about VC practices ike milestone-based funding, where you don't get funds released until you hit the milestone. Corporations are used to the annual budget. That's a very different mentality than what corporations are used to. When you start to meld these practices together, that's a cultural element we're being asked to bring to the table. Not to mention this culture of debate, of really good debate that fosters all sort of creative thinking and brainstorming in a very holistic way.
PCMag: You've also been named one of "The 100 Most Influential Women in Silicon Valley" by Silicon Valley Business Journal. Given your decades of experience living and working in Silicon Valley, I want to ask you about some of the uncomfortable realities the tech and VC world have begun to confront around culture, gender discrimination, and diversity issues in the valley.
As a successful female executive, where do you think the tech world is right now in terms of gender inequality? Can you describe the kind of workplace cultures you've experienced through the course of your career, and whether you've observed any kind of a shift over time? How far do we have to go?
SS: Thanks for the very thoughtful question. First of all, if you saw me, I cover three minorities. I'm a woman, I'm Asian/Hispanic, and I'm short. I mean short. I'm 4'11", okay? It's just a reality. I grew up understanding diversity, but I would say I was very careful to never use my diversity as an advantage. On the contrary. I would always make sure it never ever came up. That it would never get in the way of meritocracy, of hard work, of really making sure you earned your way.
As I've gotten older, as I've gotten more experience, as I've risen within the corporate ladder, I've come to realize something. A lot of time women assume there is such an understanding of the issues we have faced over the years. There is no doubt that we face unfairness. But if we're going to advance the cause, my urging to women is we must be willing to help educate and share these topics, which we know so intimately well, with men who want to advance the cause, too. Senior men and women, but most importantly men who did not speak up in the past, have become much more aware of the need to have this conversation.
PCMag: Have you observed any kind of a shift in how Silicon Valley is addressing and confronting these issues? How far do we have to go?
SS: The tech world today, particularly in Silicon Valley, has had a huge, huge, wake-up call from Susan Fowler at Uber and the memo she wrote so eloquently. This has rippled all the way through to various VC funds letting go their lead and key partners. That is very much ground-shaking. The National Venture Capital Association board, which I was a part of, created a diversity task force calling for best practices within VC land to really understand and put forward a better way to behave. So I think there's not only been a wake-up call, but those in the past that weren't speaking up are speaking up now. Like Reid Hoffman as an example. Those influential men's voices are in the conversation now, too. It's no longer the women speaking up and pleading for everyone else to listen.
The conversation is changed. The whole concept of unconscious bias, and all of the different things that I think people are much more educated about. It's created both a base of data from which to operate, but also one that allows for both men and women to be present in the conversation. And that's made a difference. The VC world has begun to take it more seriously. You see venerable firms like Sequoia, for example, taking in their first female investor a little over a year ago. Just go across the board and you're starting to see that happen.
The same thing happening in the tech world is happening in the media world, in politics. It's happening. You're seeing such an outcry. The #MeToo movement became so strong along with the Women's March movement. It has raised a level of awareness. People are saying "okay not only do I see the kind of contributions that all genders and minorities can make, but I believe it too." What before you might have said was happening on the fringe is now very mainstream. This is about our sisters and our nieces and our friends and daughters. This is not something purely peripheral, it's core to who we are. Particularly with the rise of educated women in the workforce, how can you ignore it?
Now what we have to do is expand that: will our voices truly be as powerful as men's? Now women are getting more of the field to play on as hard as the men play on. In a way, I think its just going to raise all sorts of levels of productivity, all sorts of levels of engagement that we've not seen before. It's going to be an unleashing, and frankly can be a powerful source of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to say the least.
I think the difference too is that people see that there are consequences to their actions versus in the past maybe there was a more muted tone. People might turn an eye because it was bad behavior but not necessarily one that "had a repercussion." Now there are serious repercussions, and we've seen so many fall. And again, it is not industry specific. It is across industries. I think that's the power of the message.
This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.