General Electric

Debating self-cleaning toilets with Bill Nye, Andy Samberg, General Electric, and Quirky

March 11, 2014: 4:32 PM ET

Only at South by Southwest.


FORTUNE -- In a lounge in the center of Austin's main drag on Saturday night, executives from General Electric (GE) gathered with a packed house of inventors, engineers, electronics lovers, and geeks. Beloved scientist Bill Nye sat upright on a stage. Nearby, comedian Andy Samberg slouched on his barstool, looking slightly unsure about what exactly he was doing there.

In the center of it, Ben Kaufman, the charismatic CEO of electronics startup Quirky, played the role of the ringleader. He was right at home -- his startup hosts product evaluation events like these every Thursday night in Quirky's West Chelsea headquarters. They don't often include celebrities, like this South by Southwest version, called "Night of Invention" and produced alongside GE.

For an hour, Kaufman showed idea after idea for new inventions, like a robotic snowplow or a folding fiber-optic guitar, submitted by some of the 757,000 inventors in the Quirky community. A panel of judges, including Nye; Samberg; Katrina Craigwell, head of Digital Innovation at GE; Laura Sink, a design engineer with Quirky; and Anna Buchbauer, an invention ambassador with Quirky, discussed pros and cons, while audience members jumped in with comments and questions. An appointed "advocate" defended each invention from critics and provided relevant context. ("Americans spend an average of $600 a year on snow removal!" one argued.) Audience sentiment was measured through votes on Quirky's smartphone app. A fast-moving feed of comments from web onlookers streamed on a monitor.

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Audience members shouted "Exists!" if they could find a similar product. They shouted "Explore!" if an idea was good, but required some research. A show of hands decided whether Quirky will develop the invention.

The whole noisy, chaotic thing felt like a cross between a product meeting, a game show, and a shouting match at Speaker's Corner. The vibe was positive, even amid disagreement and rejection. When the robotic snow-plow was debated, Austin Mace, a college student, piped up that he's already developed this exact thing at the University of Miami. No one believed such a thing could come out of Florida; turns out he meant the University of Miami in Ohio. Mace went onstage to show the panel evidence of his work from his phone; the panel agreed this invention already exists and quickly moved on to the next.


When Samberg snarked on an appliance for producing homemade fruit leather, the crowd laughed and someone shouted, "But it's healthy!" Translating sly sarcasm to a group of inventors in the middle of a frenzied "no such thing as bad ideas" brainstorm is a tricky thing.

The inventions ranged from practical -- a better charging mat for Android smartphones -- to Skymall-level ridiculous -- a baseball hat for grilling, with a headlamp and a fan for smoke. Samberg and Nye were immediately interested in a self-cleaning toilet invention, (Samberg out of laziness and Nye for sanitation reasons), but an audience member argued that the water pressure required would be wasteful.

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Ultimately around half of the ideas were approved by the crowd. Out of the 2,000 submissions Quirky gets per week, the company develops three. Quirky has commercialized around 150 products total. Quirky sells the items online and in stores, sharing the profits with their inventors. The company is known for its signature product, the Pivot Power, a bendable surge protector that prevents large plugs from overlapping other outlets. Backed by $175 million in venture funds, with 170 employees and nearly $50 million in annual revenue, Quirky is one of New York's strongest and most unique startups. Last year the company partnered with GE to share patents.

Quirky is Kaufman's second company. At age 19, he invented the popular Mophie iPhone case, which doubles as a battery. He sold the company in 2007.

With Quirky, he's going after a much bigger vision -- a platform for any inventor to turn their crazy ideas into a reality. But only after they win over Quirky's diehard Thursday night crew.

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