Israel’s Weekathon: GE Collaborating with multinational companies

When taken out of their normal work environments for a week, offered an endless supply of snacks, and given the freedom to collaborate, what big ideas can a group of researchers from multinational corporations (MNCs) come up with?

I teamed up with managers from other MNCs with R&D centers in Israel three years ago to form a steering committee to implement this idea, which we describe as a cross-company mock startup environment. Known as “The MNC Weekathon,” this annual event held in Israel has posed the “what can you come up with?” question to researchers from GE, Intel, GM, Microsoft, Apple, QUALCOMM, EMC2, Sears, and other multinational corporations for the past three years. We thought each MNC would benefit from cross-pollination by providing winning scientists an opportunity to work in a startup atmosphere, and by encouraging collaborations among non-competing MNCs. To promote open communication, the projects were not related to any of the participating companies’ intellectual property.

What we found was that teamwork among scientists, working for different corporations, can be very effective. The participants are energized when they get back to their regular work and excited about the experience and the new ideas the event stimulated them to generate.

Three weeks before Weekathon, all of the participating scientists meet to brainstorm about the projects. Each year we have ended up with a wall filled with tens, maybe even hundreds, of sticky notes full of creative ideas. After a process of elimination, the top ideas are chosen, teams are formed and everyone gets ready for the grand event. GE has contributed between two and three excellent scientists each year.

One of the Weekathon 2013 projects was a drone that can recognize faces in a crowd. Photo used with permission of IATI.

During the event week, the scientists are removed from their usual work environments, placed in a beautiful high tech workplace with easy access to snacks, sweets, and beverages and are given the directive to invent and build the greatest application or device based on, for example, computer vision, robotics or AI technologies. At the end of the week, they demonstrate their invention to the press.

In 2013, the first year of Weekathon, I joined one of the technical teams working on a fully instrumented Chevy Volt, contributed by GM’s Israel R&D center, to develop a cluster of in-car safety systems. One of the applications we implemented was a vision-based “forgotten–child” warning system that can detect when a child has been forgotten in a car that is locked and parked. I suggested this application because of a series of tragedies that had occurred earlier that year as a result of children being forgotten in cars. The application unlocks the car and opens its windows to prevent overheating and sends a text message and calls preselected people and first responders to alert them to the situation. If implemented, the application could save the lives of many children who die each year after being forgotten in a hot car.

The GE-GM-QUALCOMM team developed in-car video and communication based safety applications. Photo used with permission of IATI.

The overall Weekathon organization is headed by The Israeli Advanced Technology Industries (IATI), a non-profit organization representing the high tech and life science industries. GE Global Research’s Israel Tech Center manager, Oded Meirav, decided in 2012 to take a leading role in creating the culture of inter-MNC partnerships and I was happy to make this Weekathon an early example of such collaboration. Recently, he joined the IATI board of directors to promote large scale joint activities with MNCs, government bodies and consortia.

We hope to take the next Weekathons one step further and use it to leverage business partnership with measurable return.