Under the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010, US agencies have the authority and significant funds (up to $50 million, which may be pooled) to create prizes. Section 24 permits any agency head to “carry out a program to award prizes competitively to stimulate innovation that has the potential to advance the mission of the respective agency.” The European Commission has also used prizes to combat antimicrobial resistance and to pursue other goals. Thus, there is significant authority and knowledge in place to implement prizes quickly. A billion-dollar prize or series of prizes is also well within the capabilities of a number of individuals and private organizations throughout the world.
I suggest some best practices and write about implementation issues. This point is somewhat under recognized:
A prize need not be lump sum but could be tied to usage. For example, a $1 billion prize for a vaccine plus a $5 payment for every person vaccinated would tie innovation incentives even more closely to social incentives. The Advance Market Commitment for vaccines is a successful example. A prize tied to usage combines the best aspects of a prize and a patent. The prize helps to align incentives with public good production; the usage (patent-like) aspect helps to align incentives with market demand. A related advantage of tying the prize to usage is that less needs to be done up front in specifying the characteristics of the solution. For example, in the Advance Market Commitment, the vaccine had to satisfy certain properties, such as being shelf stable and administrable in developing countries. These details can be key in deciding what satisfies the prize conditions but are less necessary to the extent that the prize is tied to usage.
Here are the Emergent Venture Prizes to Combat COVID-19.