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InnoCentive Links Problems and Problem-Solvers
Posted On April 25, 2011
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With the fast pace of technological change, many companies have seen the benefits of licensing needed technologies or buying a partner or competitor that has it in order to stay competitive. But, what if it’s a problem you haven’t yet solved and would like to do so as quickly as possible? As Adrienne J. Burke wrote recently for The New York Academy of Sciences Magazine, “In a day and age when ‘thinking outside the box’ is universally touted as the fastest path to scientific and technological innovation, incentive prize contests have come to be seen as one of the most creative ways to generate groundbreaking ideas.” InnoCentive is one of the leading companies in crowdsourcing, open innovation, and incentive contests. It recently announced a partnership with Popular Science magazine to facilitate open innovation and greater collaboration in solving challenges in technology, science, and engineering. I love Popular Science, so this caught my eye, but digging into the InnoCentive site revealed an impressive range of activities and partnerships for the 10-year old company.

InnoCentive’s method of open innovation has fueled progress in areas ranging from oil spill recovery and energy solutions for rural Africa to improved treatments for tuberculosis and biomarkers for deadly diseases. Leading commercial, public sector, and non-profit organizations such as Eli Lilly, Medtronic, NASA,, Procter & Gamble, Roche, Rockefeller Foundation, and The Economist partner with InnoCentive to help them solve their most pressing problems and challenges. InnoCentive says it believes that, “By unleashing human creativity, passion, and diversity, we can solve problems that matter to business and society. Once you untether the search for solutions from an individual, department, or company, amazing things happen. Problems are solved better, faster, and at a lower cost than ever before.”

Here is how the process works. Seeker organizations post Challenges on the InnoCentive website in the Challenge Center along with an appropriate award. Solvers submit solutions to the Challenge. The Seeker pays an award to the Solver who best meets the solution requirements as outlined in the Challenge. The Seeker pays an award only if the Challenge is solved. Seekers pay InnoCentive a fee to post Challenges and, in some cases, they pay InnoCentive a commission on the amount awarded. InnoCentive does not charge Solvers to view Challenges and submit solutions.

Popular Science will establish an online “Pavilion”—a forum to be co-hosted on and—where corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies can post pressing challenges facing their business or industry in a variety of scientific disciplines and offer financial rewards for solutions. The magazine will also devise its own Challenges, the first of which will launch in May when the Pavilion goes live.

The InnoCentive site currently lists a dozen Pavilions, including ones devoted to Clean Tech, Global Health, Emergency Response 2.0 (launched in response to the BP oil spill and natural disasters), and Public Good. You can browse Challenges, and filter the results by discipline, award amount, submission type, and type of Challenge (ideation, theoretical, RTP, or eRFP).

President and CEO Dwayn Spradlin (formerly president of Hoover’s) is passionate about the potential for solving particularly daunting problems and the need for companies to adapt to survive in a world where business is global, distributed, dynamic, and fast paced. Spradlin says, “There’s a whole fundamental change in shift that has to happen in our culture for organizations to truly be open. In the 21st century, if you’re not an open organization, you’re probably going to fail.”

The InnoCentive model isn’t completely “open” as in open source software or transparency. As Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams wrote in a 2007 BusinessWeek article, “Ideagora, a Marketplace for Minds,” “Seeker businesses can cloak their identities, and solvers may never get personal credit for their contributions.” Since Spradlin joined as CEO in 2007, he has expanded the tools for communicating and collaborating with other users. In 2010, the company introduced Team Project Rooms, which allows a group of Solvers to privately collaborate and develop a team solution, and Prodigy, which enables Solvers working on certain types of Challenges to get instant feedback on the accuracy of their solution in comparison to those of other Solvers.

If you’d like to read more about the company’s strategies and models, check out the just published book, The Open Innovation Marketplace: Creating Value in the Challenge Driven Enterprise, by Spradlin and Alph Bingham (company co-founder). Thomas Malone, MIT Sloan School of Management and author of The Future of Work, had this to say about the work: “Many people talk about how work is changing, but Alpheus Bingham and Dwayne Spradlin have actually lived it. This fascinating report from the front lines of open innovation is filled with deep insights for all organizations.”

On Thursday, May 12, from 1-2pm EDT, there will be a webinar where Bingham and Spradlin will discuss the key themes of the book. Register for the webinar here.

Facts and Stats

Since 2001, InnoCentive says it has been “making a positive impact on the world, one organization at a time.” Here is a look at some of the company’s reported numbers. (Current as of Q1 2011)

Total Solvers: Approximately 250,000 from nearly 200 countries

Total Challenges Posted: 1,199

Project Rooms Opened to Date: 339,726

Total Solution Submissions: 24,256

Total Awards Given: 866

Total Award Dollars Posted: $27.7 million

Range of awards: $5,000 to $1 million based on the complexity of the problem

Total Dollars Awarded: $7 million

Average Success Rate: 50%

More Challenges

Last fall, the U.S. government got into the challenge incentive contest arena, following a call by President Obama for federal agencies to increase their use of tools such as prizes and challenges to promote and harness innovation to solve tough problems. is an online site where entrepreneurs, innovators, and citizen solvers can compete for prestige and prizes by providing novel solutions to national problems, large and small., spearheaded by the General Services Administration (in partnership with ChallengePost, a privately held start-up), makes it simple and free for Federal agencies to post rules and resources for challenges; allows anyone interested to submit a solution; and helps manage the selection process.

There are other programs and businesses involved in open innovation and incentive challenges, including Scientists Without Borders, Gates Foundation (Grand Challenges Explorations), IdeaConnection, NineSigma, and OmniCompete. The world is full of good ideas and numerous pressing global problems. With creative efforts like these, one hopes we will all reap the benefits of connecting problems with problem solvers.

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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