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The Key to Sustainability: 'Garment with Internal Bra'

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Arnold Goldman is a legend in the solar industry. Born in Israel, he came to the U.S. in the late seventies without any money or patents. He was an entrepreneur and spent days reading Department of Energy reports that listed all of the technology the government had invested in, developed and patented. Goldman found the most promising technology, and licensed and used it to build his first company, Luz International.

By 1991, Luz had installed a staggering 354 MW of solar energy, 90% of the world's capacity, before the California solar property tax exemption was vetoed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson and Luz shut it's doors. Solar is hot again, and Goldman, now chairman of Brightsource Energy, is back to developing mega projects in Southern California.

Goldman's story continues today with the support of government and university research institutions around the world. Researchers will pioneer a new technology, patent it and then one of two things happens -- the technology sits on the shelf for years unused OR an entrepreneur will license it and raise the money to turn it into a viable business. One of the most promising young algae to fuel companies, Algae Systems LLC, was started using technology developed by NASA.

On Thursday, ten big companies made an announcement at Davos that has the potential to reshape how this process happens in the world of sustainability. Led by Nike, they came together to launch a website -- viral video and all -- which aims to be the open marketplace for sustainability-related patents. The site is called GreenXchange, and the hope is that by sharing this information the technology can be adapted to other purposes, cutting redundant R&D costs and increasing the speed at which sustainable technology spreads. (Oh, and the companies can generate additional revenue through licensing the technologies.)

"Nike is today committing to placing more than 400 of our patents on GX for research, demonstrating our belief that the best way to stimulate sustainable innovation is through open innovation," said Mark Parker, Nike president and CEO. "Our hope is this will unleash new innovation to help solve current obstacles to sustainability issues."

Sounds really good, but we'll have to wait and see if the site lives up to its potential. You can't yet become a member or see how much the licensing fees are, and by the looks of it the bulk of the patents on the site are for, well, less-than-gamechanging technology such as the "Garment with Internal Bra" or the always sustainable "Golf Club Head with Regions of Discrete Density."

Nevertheless, the core idea here -- that world-saving technologies should be shared more openly -- is revolutionary and has potentially huge implications for tricky issues around technology transfer (a key issue for developing countries during the Copenhagen climate talks) and sustainability innovation more generally. You can already imagine the next Arnold Goldman, sitting in a crowded internet cafe in Shanghai or Johannesburg, scrolling through the Xchange and dreaming up ways to apply one of these technologies in a truly gamechanging way.