Stumped for solutions to hundreds of industrial and technical problems, businesses and governments alike are turning the search for innovative ideas into prize-worthy puzzles that capitalize on the ingenuity of the crowd.
At a time when the pace of innovation seems to be slowing, prize sponsors hope that today’s hackers and makers can step into the breach and jump-start progress in a way that today’s research institutions—with their many constituencies and restraints—are struggling to do.
Improve smartphone voice recognition? There’s a $10,000 prize for that. Design a delivery drone? $50,000. Extend the human lifespan? Venture capitalist Dr. Joon Yun offers the $1 million Palo Alto Longevity Prizes. Diagnose antibiotic resistance? That’s worth $20 million. And if anyone can profitably repurpose the carbon emissions involved in global warming, there are prizes totaling $55 million in the offing.
“You name it, there is a prize for it,” said Karim Lakhani at the Harvard Business School’s Crowd Innovation Lab, who has helped run 650 innovation contests in the past six years.
In addition, crowdsourcing companies such as InnoCentive Inc., NineSigma, and Kaggle have posted hundreds of these lucrative research contests on behalf of corporate and government clients, offering cash prizes up to $1 million for practical problems in industrial chemistry, remote sensing, plant genetics and dozens of other technical disciplines. Among them, the three companies can draw on the expertise of two million freelance researchers who have registered for access to the prize challenges.
All told, more than 30,000 significant prizes are awarded every year worth $2 billion and growing, according to McKinsey & Co. The total value of purses from the 219 largest prizes has tripled in the past 10 years. Not only are there more prizes than ever, but nearly 80% of all the major new prizes announced since 1991 are designed to spur specific innovations.
Yet here is a cautionary note:
To be sure, there is little evidence that crowdsourcing competitions have significantly altered the innovation landscape yet. “Prizes are important, but they are not the ultimate incentive for innovation” said Luciano Kay, a research fellow at the University of California at Santa Barbara who studies incentive prizes. “They are not big enough to change how industry works in general.”
For the pointer I thank Ray Lopez.