How the Edison Awards Work

Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann accepts the 2009 Edison Achievement Award for her work as the president of new product development at Genetech. The awards annually honor the top cutting-edge products, organizations and business executives.
Courtesy of Edison Awards

If we subjected Thomas Edison to a modern-day, corporate performance review, it would be difficult to begin describing his life. How could you capture Edison's impact when he held 1,093 U.S. patents and 1,239 non-U.S. patents in 34 countries on such inventions as the phonograph, electric lights, electric automobile and the moving picture apparatus?

In fact, if we think we have a lot on our minds, imagine being Edison -- a man who had 19 experiment ideas listed on just one of his journal entries from 1875, and who was known to work 60 hours straight with just naps and periodic snacking [source: Watson].


However, capturing this hard-working inventor's impact is just the point of the Edison Awards, a program that recognizes, honors and showcases innovation. As such, the awards are very much for those people who might not imagine being Edison, but certainly may imagine like he did.

The Edison Awards, which have been noted in such publications as Fast Company and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission newsletter, are given to people, products and organizations for such attributes as ingenuity, creativity, sustainability and having a lasting impact on our global society. Examples of past winners include Martha Stewart, J.W. Marriot Jr., Apple iPhone, WiiFit and Tide to Go.

So how does one strive to join the roster of winners? And what is the inside scoop on the Edison Awards -- awards that, per the program's mission, "symbolize the persistence and excellence personified by Thomas Alva Edison" [source: Edison Awards: Facts]? Take a pause from your own imagining to journey through the inner workings of this program. In this article, we'll talk about the judging criteria, catergories and awards process, but up first, learn about the types of Edison Awards.


Types of Edison Awards

The American Marketing Association established the Edison Awards in 1987 as a way to applaud the exemplary development and launch of new products and innovations. An independent organization since 2008, the Edison Best New Product Awards have honored some of the most innovative products, services and business leaders in America.

Tying into a historic figure such as Thomas Edison helps emphasize not only precedent-setting thinking, but also the development of lasting contributions. Still today, no other inventor has reached the immense number of patents held by Edison. In addition, his model for industrial research through a laboratory format is still relevant.


Since the awards first launched, they have grown to three varieties -- the Edison Achievement Award, Edison Best New Product Award and Edison Green Award. We'll discuss all three here in brief.

The Edison Achievement Award is reserved for the best-of-the best of the United States' corporate innovators -- individuals who inspire others to similar achievements. Award winners have set themselves apart from the pack via their contributions to society. These lasting contributions are not only groundbreaking, but are also tied to innovations and designs that start with the consumer in mind through people-centered design.

For those companies that have illustrated such performance in bringing a product to market through innovation in the development, marketing and launch of a new offering, there is the Edison Best New Product Award. Winners are granted certain privileges to use the Edison Best New Product Award seal.

The Edison Green Award is greatly tied to those corporations that are looking across their entire brand to build a sustainable, green culture. As such, this particular award links to authentic and environmentally responsible business operations. Through their actions and business practices, winners may improve a community's ability to take care of itself, advance a community's health, decrease their negative impact on the environment and create green (or environmental) career paths. Although the Edison Awards have recognized environmentally friendly products since the early 1990s, 2010 will be the first year the Edison Green Award will be given.

Want to know the specific areas where Edison Award winners excel? Proceed to the next section to learn about the program's judging criteria and categories.


Edison Award Judging Criteria and Categories

You now know the three types of Edison Awards, but that is just the beginning. What varieties of products fit the Edison Awards criteria? On what basis are they judged? And what kind of professional track record would an Edison Achievement Award winner have?

Organizations and products applying for an Edison Award get to select the category that best describes them. The Edison Awards organization outlines the following industry categories:


  • Consumer package goods
  • Electronics and computers
  • Energy and sustainability
  • Industrial design (combining usability and marketability on mass-produced products)
  • Lifestyle and wellness
  • Living, working and learning environments
  • Media and visual communications
  • Science and medical
  • Technology
  • Transportation
  • [source: Edison Awards: Product]

Although applicants for both the Edison Best New Product Award and Edison Green Award select an industry category on their applications, there are category winners for only the Edison Best New Product Award. For the Edison Green Award, the application is a starting point for the judges and is used during an initial investigation of a whole organization's environmentally friendly practices.

In addition, the Edison Awards team uses a clear set of five criteria when first judging a nomination:

  • Market structure innovation: This product would represent either a new market area or the re-creation of a current one by carving a new area or taking one over.
  • Marketplace innovation: This product illustrated a stellar introduction to the marketplace, and any traditional marketing methods would need to have been used in new ways.
  • Marketplace success: To fulfill this criterion, a product must show signs of profitability and staying around for the long term.
  • Societal impact: Nominees have a positive effect on society if they improve a user's way of life and allow for more choices.
  • Technological innovation: This criterion relates to how cutting-edge and first-of-its-kind a nominee is.
  • [source: Edison Award: Product]

For the Edison Achievement Award, winners are generally senior business executives in their industry. Their achievements and careers are judged by review of their histories, work practices and positive impact on society.

You are now briefed in the Edison Awards judging criteria, but let's get down to the behind-the-scenes action of the awards program -- important program validation and the inside scoop on the judges casting their votes.


Program Validation and Judges

The Edison Awards organization does not operate as a secluded group, but is validated by an outside organization, steering committee and panel of more than 2,000 executives. In addition, the Discovery Channel recently announced a joint partnership with the Edison Awards and will promote award nominees. In this section, you'll find a description of the program's vast judging body and its role.

Outside of the Edison Awards officials, the program is validated by the Thomas A. Edison Papers Project out of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. This ongoing project launched in 1978 with the goal of examining and preserving millions of pages of documents chronicling Edison's life.


Furthermore, for judging purposes, all nominations for the Edison Best New Product Award and Edison Green Award are first reviewed by the program's steering committee. This group is also responsible for staying in the know on U.S. innovators, because they are in charge of selecting the Edison Achievement Award winner. Currently, the steering committee, as outlined by the Edison Awards, includes the following members:

  • Sarah Miller Caldicott, Thomas Edison's great-grandniece and co-author of "Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America's Greatest Inventor"
  • Calvin Hodock, former chairman of the board of the American Marketing Association
  • Dr. Paul B. Israel, director and general editor of the Thomas A. Edison Papers at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
  • Dr. M. Krishna Erramilli, professor of marketing and director of IIT Stuart MBA Program at the Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Dr. Robert S. Langer, professor in the department of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Thomas K. Stat, executive director of new business development for IDEO
  • [source: Edison Awards: Steering]

After the committee has reviewed the nominees, the members develop a ballot for the Edison Best New Product Award, which they send to the more than 2,000 members of the Marketing Executive Networking Group, a professional organization. From all entrants, the steering committee also decides which organizations to follow up with to determine the Edison Green Award winner.

Now that you know just who makes up the group of judges, you need to know how a nominee gets in front of the steering committee to begin with. Proceed to the next section to learn about the application process.


Edison Award Program Process

As you learned in the previous section, the steering committee monitors the marketplace for potential Edison Achievement Award winners. However, to be considered for the Edison Best New Product Award or Edison Green Award, the person nominating must first submit a product or organization through the application form.

So what is involved in completing the application? The application is made available online and also involves an entry fee. The fee for the 2010 awards was $250 for entries submitted from Sept. 8, 2009, to Nov. 9, 2009, and $350 for entries submitted from Nov. 10, 2009 to Dec. 11, 2009. In addition to what you would likely already expect on the form, entrants must address two areas in their entries -- the judging criteria and how they met Thomas Edison's competencies.


First, you'll remember from the section on judging criteria and categories the five criteria used to analyze entries. This area of the application is where an entrant gets to make a case as to how the nomination fulfills these criteria.

Second, applicants must choose one from among five Edison competencies used during the applicant's process and describe this in short essay format. These competencies -- tools and traits Edison used -- were defined by Michael J. Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott, Edison's great-grandniece, when writing "Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America's Greatest Inventor."

The competencies as outlined on the Edison Award application are below, followed by brief and summarized definitions from Gelb and Caldicott's book:

  • Solution-centered mindset: Being fully committed to finding a solution through multiple methods, regardless of setbacks and complexity
  • Kaleidoscopic thinking: Working effectively on many projects or problems at one time, as well as looking at a challenge from multiple points of view
  • Full-spectrum engagement: Living in the present, while moving with passion, creativity and energy throughout all of a day's tasks
  • Master-mind collaboration: Coming together with others from diverse backgrounds and joining forces in a creative, harmonious and productive environment
  • Super-value creation: Understanding of your customers' needs and fulfilling them in a more valuable way than your competitors are

[sources: Edison Awards, Gelb and Caldicott]

For applicants, completing the application and linking to the judging criteria and competencies may become a moment to pause and reflect before continuing to imagine, build and innovate like Thomas Edison. The Edison Awards are a tribute for these products and individuals. Learn more about the awards and keep up to date on the process by following the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Bonafilia, Frank, Managing Director of the Edison Awards. Personal correspondence. December 23, 2009, and December 30, 2009.
  • Bonafilia, Frank. Managing Director of the Edison Awards, Personal interview. December 21, 2009, and December 30, 2009. 
  • Edison Awards. (December 19, 2009)
  • Edison Awards. "Edison Best New Product Awards: Innovation."
  • Edison Awards. "Edison's Industries and Patents."
  • Edison Awards. "Quick Facts."
  • Edison Awards. "Steering Committee."
  • Gelb, Michael J., and Miller Caldicott, Sarah. "Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America's Greatest Inventor." Penguin Group (USA) Inc. October 2007.
  • Innovate Like Edison. (December 28, 2009)
  • McAuliffe, Kathleen. "The Undiscovered World of Thomas Edison." The Atlantic. December 1995. (December 29, 2009)
  • National Historical Publications and Records Commission. "Edison Goes Green." NHPRC News. September 2009. (December 19, 2009)
  • The Thomas Edison Papers. "Thomas Alva Edison Biography." Rutgers. October 20, 2009. (December 19, 2009)
  • Tischler, Linda. "Ideo's David Kelley Wins Edison Award for Innovation." Fast Company. February 4, 2009. (December 19, 2009)
  • Watson, Bruce. "A Wizard's Scribe." Smithsonian magazine. August 1998. (December 19, 2009)
  • Weinberg, Joshua. "Furthering its Celebration of Curiosity and Innovation Discovery Channel and the World Renowned Edison Awards Announce Joint Partnership." December 11, 2009. (December 19, 2009)