Quirky Relaunches as GE Relationship Evolves in Connected Home Race

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One in five Americans now owns an Internet-connected home appliance and two-thirds are willing to purchase one or more if it helps them save on utility bills and increase home security, leading to the multi-billion dollar question: who will power these burgeoning home ecosystems? 

It’s been a big year for connectivity. Google purchased Nest for $3.2 billion in January, Microsoft partnered with SmartLabs’ Insteon, Apple is launching HomeKit (announced in June) and Samsung acquired SmartThings.

And then there’s Quirky, the crowdsourced invention startup that launched in 2009 as a “social product development company,” which has a major ally in this race thanks to GE—although it’s a relationship, as their Facebook status might say, that’s “complicated” and evolving.[more]

Quirky partnered with GE last year, taking a $30 million stake in the company as part of a $79 million investment round. The companies have partnered on a line of products powered by the Wink app, a collection of smart gadgets with connective software platform and the wisdom of the crowd behind them.

The relationship with GE also brought Quirky access to big-time ideas via GE’s patent portfolio, which were made available on the Quirky Inspiration platform to its community of makers and inventors, and the big brains in GE’s global research network. GE, meanwhile, gained access to the maker community and some fresh thinking for its innovation pipeline.

Their offspring, the Wink hub, launched in June as a $79 box that links Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-wave devices, becoming an unexpected frontrunner in bringing the smart home mainstream as major players like Honeywell, Philips, Chamberlain, Schlage and GE are scrambling to create Wink-compatible products and major retailers Home Depot and Amazon are selling the Wink brand.

The collaboration with GE also augmented the user-generated concept behind Quirky: that anyone can be an inventor and submit an idea (“it doesn’t matter if it’s a little doodle, a crazy chemical formula, or a ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…'”). 

That community votes by clicking on product ideas at Quirky.com, where product pitches are live for seven days. Then “every Thursday, we gather a group of industry experts, friends, and community members at our headquarters in New York. Watch live as we drink beer and debate the best ideas that have been submitted. Before we’re allowed to go home, we’ve chosen the next products that we’ll begin working on.”

As Ad Age reported, “Quirky’s community members, currently 1 million, submit ideas that are evaluated by the company’s experts and test marketed to other members. To date, about 350 products have been developed—and about 150 sold—on the Quirky website and through retail partners.”

The incentive for users to participate in this crowdsourced product innovation platform? “You play a role in every single decision we make. Help us decide something as simple as what color we should make a product, or as complicated as how to solve an engineering issue. Clicking buttons on Quirky makes you money” (even if not very much money).

Small-time inventors (such as Pivot Power creator Jake Zien) whose ideas make it through to production get up to 10% commission, and also get their names on the packaging and bragging rights for seeing an idea to market.

As the first co-developed product to emerge, Quirky and GE this year launched an air conditioner called Aros, which uses the Wink app and a smartphone interface and adds new styling to a standard GE air conditioner, allowing users to remotely control the unit.

As Ad Age noted, Aros also delivered ads “in real time—through weather alerts on mobile phones—when the temperatures were rising above 75 and people were thinking about how hot it was.”

However, an unexpected twist in the relationship between GE and Quirky came this year when the startup was reportedly one of the players looking to buy GE’s appliances unit. The division ultimately sold to Swedish appliance-maker, Electrolux, and Quirky lost access to GE’s appliance patent portfolio as a result.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, “Quirky can continue to sell the Aros, which bears a GE logo, even after the appliance unit sale to Electrolux is complete. But Quirky won’t have access to GE’s other appliance patents, which go to Electrolux as part of its $3.3 billion acquisition.”

“GE and Quirky will continue to partner to grow connected devices, which will include home technologies in areas like automation, energy and lighting,” said a GE spokesman to WSJ.

As the Journal notes, “Quirky is now moving ahead with its efforts to promote so-called ‘connected home’ technology, adding sensors and automatic communication to household products to allow them to be remotely monitored and controlled from the company’s Wink app.”

Quirky is also relaunching its crowdsourcing platform this month. As Bret Kovacs, its head of community, told Ad Age, “Our goal every day is to make invention accessible. Inventing by yourself is hard. Big pieces of the new platform will be around collaboration: allowing an everyday person to team up with experts who are on the platform and to bounce ideas off peers.”

And according to WSJ, this holiday season Quirky and GE will release a handful of other products.

“Those could look less like the $279 Aros window air conditioner, and more like other inventions that have been developed by Quirky users in partnership with GE, including the Nimbus, a customizable ‘dashboard’ for displaying time, weather and other information. Or the Refuel, a gauge for a propane grill that relays to a smartphone when the tank needs refilling.”

Wink remains manufacturer-agnostic, compatible with a virtual plethora of enabled devices from Phillips, Bosch, and Honeywell, and The Wink hub, speaks all wireless languages and costs $50.

Wink’s second product, Relay, released in September, is a touchscreen control center for connected devices. “Maybe you’re getting out of the shower or cooking up dinner and you don’t want a phone in hand,” said Nathan Smith, Wink’s co-founder and head of technology, to The Verge. “We felt like there was an opportunity to offer the same power and flexibility we do in the Wink mobile app, but in a central place in your home that is always on, and doesn’t require an additional device to operate.”

The Relay retails for $300, operates on Android and works across Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and radio standards like Zigbee. As The Verge commented, “There’s a certain irony to removing the smartphone from the smart home equation, but also a mainstream accessibility that has become Wink’s signature.”

The Quirky partnership is still overseen by GE CMO Beth Comstock, who is also busy these days reigniting the company’s 130-year-old, $3 billion lighting business (including a, dare we say, quirky ad featuring Jeff Goldblum), and Quirky has been helping in that task.

Comstock told Fortune she sees the greatest opportunity going forward in partnership with start-ups developing large-scale LED technology for commercial purposes where “lighting becomes a service business.” She added that by “Working with Quirky, I’m learning about scale and speed.” 

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