The People and Teams That Power High-Impact Incentive Prizes

Federal agencies have used prize competitions and challenges to drive competition and spark innovation for nearly a decade. In September 2010, as part of President Obama’s Strategy for American Innovation [PDF], the Administration launched Challenge.gov, an online platform that enables federal agencies to engage civic innovators, entrepreneurs, and citizen scientists in prize competitions and challenges designed to help carry out agency missions and benefit society.

The Administration is helping organize two events this week to celebrate the success of Challenge.gov, recognize the importance of public-sector prizes, and catalyze the next-generation of ambitious prizes. On Wednesday, October 7, the White House, the Case Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, and Georgetown University will host an event titled “All Hands on Deck: Solving Complex Problems through Prizes and Challenges” that will provide federal, state, and local government leaders and private-sector supporters with information and tools on how to effectively use incentive prizes to improve outcomes in addressing complex social, policy, and technological challenges in national priority areas. On Thursday, October 8, the General Services Administration will host a community of more than 300 prize practitioners to celebrate the great accomplishments of public-sector prizes at a five-year anniversary event for Challenge.gov.

Both of these events will showcase some of the more than 450 challenges that the federal government has conducted over the past 5 years to surface solutions from people and places across the country that would have been exceptionally difficult to discover through more traditional tools, like contracts and grants. A few examples of these people-powered prizes are:

  • FDA Food Safety: The Food and Drug Administration launched the Food Safety prize competition in 2014 to encourage innovators to think of ideas that would quickly detect disease-causing organisms in food. The winning team from Purdue University, led by Professor Michael Ladisch [PDF], developed a technology that concentrates Salmonella to detectable levels using automated microfiltration, making it possible to process samples in hours instead of days.
  • Ultra High Speed Apps: In September 2013, the National Institute of Justice offered a $75,000 prize to developers who could create an app that significantly improved public safety services. The winner, Bruce Patterson [PDF] from Ammon, Idaho, created a school emergency screencast application that uses existing camera systems, ultra-high-speed bandwidth, and gunshot detection hardware to report fire immediately to first responders, and allows emergency personnel to identify an active shooter.
  • Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT): Since 2012, the National Institutes of Health has challenged student teams every year to create solutions addressing pressing needs in biomedicine and technology for underserved populations. This year, a winning Washington University team, led by Andrew Brimer and Abby Cohen [PDF], designed a low-cost spirometer for diagnosing and monitoring respiratory diseases. The spirometer costs less than $10—orders of magnitude less than the $1000-$2000 usually required to detect such diseases.
  • Desal Prize: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Bureau of Reclamation challenged innovators around the world to create cost-effective, energy efficient, sustainable desalination technologies to provide water for people and crops. The winning Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team [PDF] designed a solar-powered system that removes salt from water with electricity and uses ultraviolet rays to disinfect the water, showing the potential for photovoltaic-powered electrodialysis to be a scalable, sustainable, and affordable desalination technology for rural areas of developing countries.

Prize competitions and challenges have helped both public and private agencies solve an array of problems in pertinent national priority areas, such as energy, public safety, health, cybersecurity, and infrastructure. In addition to helping federal agencies and the public address these important issues, prize competitions and challenges also benefit participants and solvers by enabling them to launch their own companies, scale up their ideas, increase their pool of resources, or simply network. For example, Andrew Brimer and Abby Cohen—winners of the DEBUT challenge—were able to use their $10,000 winnings to start Sparo Labs, which now employs five full-time employees.

To find additional prize and challenge success stories, click here. And to learn more about public-sector prizes, we encourage you to participate virtually in the October 7 and 8 events! Tune into the livestream of the October 7 event from 9:30AM-12:00AM ET here, and register here for information about the livestream of the October 8 event from 2:00PM-5:30PM ET. Leading up to, during, and after these events, you can also follow @ChallengeGOV and tweet using the hashtag #PublicPrizes to share your questions and ideas, and to recognize prize and challenge solvers that you know.

Jenn Gustetic is Assistant Director for Open Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kelly Olson is the Director of the Challenge.gov program at the General Services Administration.

This article was originally published on the OSTP blog.

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