Who innovates better: Fortune 500 companies, or scrappy startups? That’s been a popular parlor game question in business circles for years. But attendees at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech – our annual gathering in Aspen – found today’s innovation requires the skills of both the big and the small. And both are working together in new and unusual ways.
Ben Kaufman, founder of Quirky – which was started to crowdsource innovative ideas and turn them into products – confessed yesterday his original vision for his company has failed. He lost more than $120 million making odd products and selling them to big box retailers at a loss. (When I asked: “When will you run out of money,” he replied: “Weeks ago.”) So what is Quirky’s new business model? Working with big companies like General Electric to crowdsource innovative ideas, but let the big company take them to market.
Later in the morning, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris captivated the crowd by describing how he’s getting his 118-year-old behemoth to act more like a startup. He has deepened research relationships with key universities, remade his work force by sharply reducing the average age of his employees, added technologists and data scientists to Dow’s traditional chemists, and used high throughput screening to do ten times the number of science experiments each year that he did a decade ago. “We are catching up with Silicon Valley,” he insists.
This convergence of the Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley is a key reason we decided to hold this year’s Fortune Global Forum, our signature CEO event, in San Francisco. It’s Nov. 2-4, details here. If you are interested in attending, shoot me an email.
Carl Icahn vs. Larry Fink and the day’s other news below.
• Icahn calls BlackRock “dangerous”
Activist investor Carl Icahn accused money management firm BlackRock of pumping air into a bubble in high-yield debt by pushing seemingly safe investments on individual investors that were actually filled with what he claims are risky bonds. “BlackRock is an extremely dangerous company,” Icahn said while sitting next to BlackRock CEO Larry Fink at a conference. Fortune
• Netflix subscriber growth hits record
Netflix added 2.5 million new subscribers, as the streaming movie service’s push overseas helped add more users, with the prediction it will have 4 million more subscribers by the end of the third quarter. Those strong results helped lift Netflix’s shares in after hours trading on Wednesday. CEO Reed Hastings credited a strong launch in Australia and the popularity of the company’s Spanish language content with subscribers. Fortune
• Macy’s in activist investor’s crosshairs
Department store operator Macy’s has found itself the latest target of activist investment firm Starboard Value, which says the retailer can lift its share price by spinning off its real estate into a separate company. Starboard estimates shares are worth almost double their current price, comments that lifted Macy’s shares on Wednesday and made the stock the biggest gainer on the S&P 500. Associated Press
• China’s debt climbs to record high
China’s second-quarter economic expansion beat analysts’ forecasts but outstanding loans for companies and households stood at a record 207% of gross domestic product at the end of June, up from 125% in 2008, according to Bloomberg. Observers say it is alarming that the debt-to-GDP ratio is projected to keep rising. There are also concerns that the increase in debt will slow the nation’s growth. Bloomberg
• Greek parliament approves bailout
The Greek parliament has passed the sweeping austerity measures demanded by lenders to open talks on a new multibillion-euro bailout packaged that will keep the nation in the euro. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said there was no alternative to the package, telling parliament ahead of the vote that he supported it against his will to prevent Greece from financial collapse. Reuters
Around the Water Cooler
• SeaWorld-Peta rift takes bizarre turn
Theme park operator SeaWorld has been accused by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) of sending an employee to infiltrate the animal rights group, which has lamented the company’s treatment of killer whales. Peta is claiming an activist is actually an employee of the aquatic theme park. The man who reportedly also works for SeaWorld has been involved in Peta protests for several years. The Guardian
• Mars expands as peers shrink
Chocolate maker Mars will next week begin construction on a $100 million expansion at its Topeka, Kans., facility where it produces a variety of M&M’s and Snickers products. The investment is notable as many peers among the Big Food industry have actually been reducing U.S. production capacity as consumers shift away from packaged food. Confectionaries have held up better than other parts of the food industry – partly because it is fairly clear that candy will always be an indulgence. Fortune
• Samsung pulls out all the stops
Home visits, text messages, front-page newspaper ads and hand-delivered watermelons: these are some of the methods Samsung is employing to woo shareholders to agree to a merger that is key to keeping the conglomerate under family control. There is a vote on Friday asking investors to back a $8 billion merger of construction and trading arm Samsung C&T with the company’s de facto holding company. But a U.S. hedge fund claims the merger is “grossly unfair” to shareholders and has been gathering support to oppose the deal. WSJ (subscription required)