U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Manila, Nov. 18, 2015. Reuters/Aaron Favila/Poo

U.S. President Barack Obama sat down to an unconventional panel discussion on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila, Philippines, on Wednesday, playing the role of moderator, quizzing Chinese e-ecommerce billionaire Jack Ma on how government and big businesses could help young entrepreneurs build earth-friendly technologies.

At one point during the nearly 25-minute discussion, Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., told the U.S. president that it was a "fantastic idea" that businesses should use their resources and know-how to invest in clean technologies, referring to an idea that Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates had suggested recently.

Ma added that Alibaba Group, over the last six years, has been spending 0.3 percent of its total revenue each year to encourage young inventors and entrepreneurs to find creative ways to tackle the problems of global warming and build clean technologies.

Sharing the stage with Obama and Ma was Aisa Mijeno, who founded a startup SALT Lamp (sustainable alternative lighting) with her brother, inventing a portable electricity generator that uses salt water in a chemical reaction to generate enough power to run a lamp for eight hours at a time. The unit can also be used to charge small devices such as mobile phones.

"The lamp you talked about, in addition to providing light, you also charge cell phones, so people are more likely to charge their cell phones ... more likely to use e-commerce, to purchase things on Alibaba," Obama joked. "So I think there's a synergy here," he said, hinting that Alibaba should invest in the startup, which was looking to scale up production of the lamp.

Good for business

Earlier, in a speech, Obama urged chief executives of businesses worldwide to focus on clean technologies, arguing that it was good for their companies' bottom lines.

“My message to you today is that your businesses can do right by your bottom lines and by our planet and future generations,” the Wall Street Journal cited Obama as saying in the speech. “The old rules that said we couldn’t grow our economies and protect our environment at the same time, those are outdated.”

In the panel discussion that followed, Ma echoed that sentiment: "Two weeks ago, Bill Gates called me about inviting me to join forces in investing in clean technologies. We are now a big company, but compared to 50 years later, we are small, and if we don't care about this earth ... nobody can survive, whether you are big or small."