Whether you are looking for innovations in technological developments or better business processes, seeking help outside of your organization in the form of contests has proven to be an effective way to discover new and novel ideas. Public challenges and contests have enjoyed a long history, from the Longitude Prize offered by the British government in the 18th century to persons who could discover a way to accurately measure Longitude, to the Netflix Prize which sought to improve the accuracy of user rating predictions. More recent challenges have come from GE, and NASA, which are both looking for innovations outside of their organizations.
GE recently launched a $200 Million open innovation challenge in which the company is calling on businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, and students to come up with ideas on how to improve the next generation power grid. The contest focuses on three categories for submission: Creating an intelligent grid to better manage the volatile output of renewable energy sources, improving grid efficiency by anticipating and monitoring demand, and developing technologies that help homeowners use less energy in order to reduce the imbalance between energy supply and demand that can currently cause power production and distribution to short-circuit. GE and its partners have pledged to invest the prize money globally into promising startups and ideas, while a panel of judges will pick five winners and award each a $100,000 prize “to acknowledge these entries as examples of outstanding entrepreneurship and innovation”.
Furthermore, GE is sweetening the deal with the opportunity for selected entrants to develop commercial relationships with the company. Besides receiving part of the $200 Million to fund their ideas, entrants will be given access to many of GE’s resources, including technical and commercial teams to evaluate the entrant’s business strategy, and the company’s technical infrastructure to accelerate technology and product development. A commercial partnership will of course also offer entrants access to GE’s global reach and customer relationships to help scale any new venture and create a successful market strategy. By leveraging its existing resources, GE hopes to tap into the innovation capabilities of the public to both solve technological challenges and develop its power grid business strategy.
Continuing its rich tradition of funding innovation contests, NASA announced three new “Centennial Challenges” last week. A prize purse of $5 Million will be divided among independent teams that do not receive government funding in three separate categories. The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is intended to “stimulate innovations in low-cost launch technology” and awards $2 Million to the team that can place a small satellite into orbit twice in one week. A $1.5 Million prize will be awarded to the Night Rover Challenge winner, who has to demonstrate a solar-powered exploration vehicle that can operate in darkness using stored energy. The Sample Return Robot Challenge has the goal of sparking innovations in automatic navigation and will award a $1.5 Million prize to the team that builds a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from varied terrain without human intervention. The agencies’ chief technologist, Bobby Braun, puts it best when he explains that “NASA sponsors prize competitions because the agency believes student teams, private companies of all sizes and citizen-inventors can provide creative solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation,” adding that “prize competitions are a proven way to foster technological competitiveness, new industries and innovation across America.”
Public contests can be used as an effective tool to supplement a company’s internal innovation efforts as well as introduce the organization to new and novel ideas. Harnessing the collective knowledge of people on the ground can effectively shake up corporate cultures and introduce new perspectives. Perhaps most importantly, a public contest is a great way for companies to increase their brand awareness by showing themselves to be fun, innovative, and connected to their customer base.