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Wise Labs: The members are retired, their brains keep going

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Wise Labs: The members are retired, their brains keep going

Are you retired? Do you have decades of experience as an engineer, researcher, scientist, inventor o
Wise Labs: The members are retired, their brains keep going
Retired GE executives Brad Irvine, left, and Jon Glass, right, (along with retired Harvard professor Dennis Encarnation) recently launched a company called Wise Labs, a community of experienced scientists and engineers who want to keep inventing things...
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Are you retired? Do you have decades of experience as an engineer, researcher, scientist, inventor or all-around Einstein? Do you find yourself itching for a really great problem to solve? Or spending inordinate amounts of time tinkering with projects in your garage?

If so, Wise Labs wants you.

The Schenectady business launched last fall as a collective of retired minds looking to solve problems and help fellow tinkerers get their ideas to market. Its co-founders — retired General Electric executives Brad Irvine and Jonathan Glass and retired Harvard Business School professor Dennis Encarnation — had a hunch that the Capital Region was bristling with fellow retirees whose collective knowledge could be harnessed to solve some of the world’s toughest problems.

“I was retiring from GE around this time last year and was over at the Global Research Center talking to people who were also retiring, asking what they were going to do,” recalled Irvine, who was then president of GE Licensing, the company’s global intellectual property commercialization business. “And we all realized that there were some 2,600 very smart, Ph.D.-holding retired residents in the Capital District who had left the Global Research Center but still had a lot to offer.”

He needed a business model, though. So he got together with Glass, who had worked with him at GE Licensing in Albany, and Encarnation, a business wiz with three decades at Harvard under his belt, and together they dreamed up Wise Labs.

The business offers two primary services — it helps inventors license their intellectual property and get their ideas to market and it helps businesses solve problems and work through snags. And it does all this with the collective minds of its membership.

“It could be a scientist who’s come up with some really cool invention idea and is building prototypes in his garage but now needs somebody’s help to take this invention to market,” said Glass. “We can be that army of business people who helps with that. Or it could be a startup company in Texas that needs some very specific, technical expertise — an organic chemist, an RF signaling expert, a ceramics expert, a metallurgist — for a specific problem. We then have our members consult with them to solve that problem.”

They unveiled the whole thing in September to a group of GE Global Research retirees in Niskayuna, and have already signed up more than 100 retirees as members.

To keep the membership elite, prospective members go through an application process to ensure they’re not just any Joe Schmo off the street. They also sign membership agreements that provide reasonable protections for the member and for Wise Labs (the members control their intellectual property until they say otherwise, don’t submit ideas from their old employers, etc.).

“Once these people retired, they typically looked for ways to stay active and involved,” Glass said. “One of our members is very active with Habitat for Humanity. Another is a speaker in a speaker series at Union College. Another does a lot of grant writing for nonprofits because he got to be very good at writing grants at GE for government research funding. Some folks are doing consulting on their own. And then there’s tinkerers, the folks in their garage or the guy who owns a backhoe who just loves doing and building things. And that’s the kind of energy we want to capture. Those are the right people to get involved with Wise Labs.”

It’s probably no surprise that Wise Labs is partnering with GE and invention company Quirky when possible (Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman and retired GE exec Walt Robb are both advisers to Wise Labs). Irvine is actually the guy who helped convince Quirky to open a location in Schenectady last spring. Wise Labs even has offices inside Quirky’s downtown Schenectady headquarters.

GE and Quirky are already partners, working together on projects like Wink, a line of smart home devices, including Web- and smartphone-connected air conditioners, security cameras, lights, garage doors and thermostats.

Quirky takes invention ideas from around the world, picks the ones it likes the best, asks online users to dream up names and any appropriate tweaks, finds a way to make and sell the inventions, and then shares a cut of the revenue with the inventor and anyone who influenced the final product.

“As we were figuring out the Wise Labs model, we went to Quirky and said, ‘Hey, we’re thinking of doing this thing that’s very complementary to what you do, what do you think?’ ” Glass recalled. “So we formed a partnership where if our inventors or members have ideas that are a good fit with what Quirky does and they’re willing to bring their ideas to market through Quirky, we bring those ideas to Quirky first. From Quirky’s viewpoint, that’s a great way to get world-class scientists generating ideas that Quirky can run with.”

One Wise Labs member, a retired GE engineer and proud tinkerer, is working with Wise Labs and Quirky to develop and sell accessories for hybrid and electric vehicles that he dreamed up in his free time over the years.

“He worked at the Global Research Center on hybrid locomotives and things like that, but GE was never in the hybrid vehicle space so [he] would work on his hybrid vehicles in his garage,” Irvine said. “Back in the ’70s he was building electric cars and he has a lot of non-GE related inventions that you could hook onto a Prius, for example. They’re really cool.”

Not every client necessarily wants to launch an invention through Quirky. In fact, many are bright enough to see an idea all the way through to development without a lot of the handholding that Quirky provides. But they may need help on the commercialization end — that’s where Wise Labs comes in.

“We’re working with sophisticated scientists who are used to working in the world of patent filings and intellectual property,” Glass said. “So a big part of how we engage them is letting them control their destiny. They don’t just give us the idea and we’re in the driver’s seat. It’s really a partnership with our members in control until they agree otherwise.”

So far, the response from the retired community and business community has been encouraging enough that the guys behind Wise Labs are now embarking on a $1 million capital campaign to build out the business.

“We want to build out our platform and our resources so we can execute on what we see as a really big opportunity,” Glass said.

To learn more about Wise Labs, visit www.wiselabs.com or contact them at 387-3115 or [email protected]

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