Why GE Sees Big Things in Quirky's Little Inventions

Ben Kaufman (left), founder and CEO of Quirky, and Jake Zien work on Zien’s product, an adjustable power strip called Pivot Power Photograph by Christian Clothier/Sundance Channel via AP Photo

General Electric is best at making big things. Its biggest source of revenue is energy infrastructure. Aviation and health-care equipment also add billions to its bottom line. But even the most staid of companies can be drawn in by the temptation to make an egg container that sends a text when an expiration date looms, or a power strip that connects to the Internet, even if whimsical devices aren’t the best use of an aviation engineer’s time.

That’s where Quirky comes in. A sort of invention-by-committee club run as a startup on Manhattan’s West Side, Quirky solicits ideas each week for inventions that its users can put through the design process. The company then gets finished products placed on the shelves of major retailers like Home Depot.

For over a year, GE and Quirky have been engaged in an extended flirtation. First, they worked on a milk jug that would tell users when its contents were going sour. That led to an announcement in April in which GE agreed to share patents with the Quirky community in order to create a line of small, connected devices for the holidays. The first four products were released last month, including the egg container and the power strip.

On Wednesday, however, GE consummated the relationship with a $30 million investment in Quirky, part of a $79 million funding round that brings the startup’s total fundraising to about $170 million. (Bloomberg LP, the parent of this publication, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz, another of Quirky’s investors.)

Beth Comstock, GE’s chief marketing officer, believes Quirky can create playful consumer products that GE simply isn’t good at. She sees the first batch of jointly produced products as validation of the partnership, and the companies plan to collaborate on six products a year for each of the next five years. For its part, Quirky wants to move into more complicated things, like Internet-connected sprinklers and the like.

Building such gadgets is fine, yet Quirky founder Ben Kaufman also outlines a more ambitious vision. His company has been working on WINK, a software platform that it hopes will become the standard for consumer devices connected to the Internet. Any product that uses the software can be controlled by a single smartphone app, and any manufacturer of connected devices could build a gadget using the software.

That would place Quirky dead center of the consumer version of the so-called Internet of Things. It’s sort of like the industrial Internet GE is building to connect things like power plant turbines, only for egg trays and garage door openers. Which, if it can pull off, doesn’t sound so small after all.