Great Ideas Are Our Best Currency

Light bulb and gears. Perpetuum mobile idea concept. 3d
Light bulb and gears. Perpetuum mobile idea concept. 3d

I wrote a note to myself recently to the effect that there are "few things more sustainable than a great idea." Think about it. A great idea can become a life force of its own. It can stimulate. It can inspire and motivate. And a single great idea can act as the broad shoulders upon which any number of newer, bolder, and even better ideas may one day perch.

During the deeply impenetrable diplomatic-ese of the Paris talks, it became clear to me that it is the straightforward contributions of business that will ultimately save the planet. And for evidence, I didn't have to look much further than the NOVA Awards my friends at Saint-Gobain gave out during our recent Greenbuild conference in DC. The NOVA Innovation Awards are designed to shine a spotlight on start-up companies doing exciting, innovative, and groundbreaking work in sustainability, service to humanity, and environmental responsibility. (And I suppose few entities on the planet are more qualified to speak of the power of sustainability than Saint-Gobain, a global building materials company that's been around for more than 350 years. Saint-Gobain is, in other words, the embodiment of sustainability!)

The three companies that Saint-Gobain selected and then honored with trophies and a combined $100,000 in seed money were just - and I mean this from the bottom of my sustainable heart - incredible (as were, frankly, each of the 8 finalists). I should know. I was honored to be among those asked to judge this year's competition.

The three companies honored with a 2015 Nova Innovation Competition Award were: US Bionics, 10X Technology, and Ecovative Design. And each of those three is not merely changing the world; it's changing lives in the process.

US Bionics develops robotic exoskeletons for the medical and industrial markets. In simple terms, what that means is that the company creates robotic coverings that can do everything for people, from relieving the manual stress of repetitive work to allowing a disabled, chair-bound war veteran to once again walk.

And if you think that description is technical, consider 10x Technology, a startup that has created a manufacturing platform in which basic materials are transformed into micro- and nano-structured products, a process that uses polymers, metals, and ceramics to obtain high value-added products for the energy, medical, electronics, transportation, defense, and habitat markets. Yeah, I know, another confusing description. But in a nutshell, the company has reimagined manufacturing way down at the molecular level, and in the process is changing the very nature of our relationship with any number of life-saving and life-enhancing products.

And finally, my personal favorite; Ecovative Design creates bio-composite materials from agricultural byproducts and mushroom mycelium - a tissue that acts as an adhesive. And I say Ecovative is my favorite not because its products are any better, but because the company is, like me, based in Upstate New York (and because, frankly, I can explain what it does better than I can the others). In essence, Ecovative grows mushrooms and then converts mushroom tissue into eco-friendly foam that is then used to make such critical and sometimes decidedly environmentally unfriendly products as insulation, furniture, and packaging material.

(In fact, I was so enamored of Ecovative that I devoted two full pages in my new book Greenthink to describing how neither of the company's founders set out to save the planet. They hoped only to carve out a market niche and build a business.)

But what I love about all three of these ideas is that they represent such a dramatic departure from so much tired and age-old wisdom. They're not just a variation of a theme but an abrupt leap onto an entirely new path.

They are, in other words, great new ideas that blow so much of what we think we know out of the water. And that's the kind of innovation it's going to take if we really are going to solve climate change.