All In: Partnering Across Sectors Can Boost Competition Results

Dec 11, 2015

We’ve heard the phrase a million times: Nobody does it alone.

Still, it rings true no matter what you’re trying to accomplish.

When it comes to crowdsourcing competitions, government agencies are making breakthroughs in a variety of fields by partnering with companies, nonprofit organizations and others beyond the federal framework.

The White House announced more than 20 new prize competitions in October, many of them collaborations with industry and academia. These challenges will tackle a variety of issues, from literacy to the environment.

The bigger the problem, the more an agency might want to enlist some outside help.

Hands reaching together for a handshake

Partnering for Global Impact

A recent challenge from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) sparked cross-sector partnerships that are continuing well after the competition’s close.

Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development sought solutions to help healthcare workers stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. In addition to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Defense Department, USAID tapped non-government partners for the challenge, too.

That included DuPont, which is now teaming with the winner of the challenge, Johns Hopkins University, to bring a safer, easier-to-use Ebola suit to market.

The challenge saw a succession of partnerships between an academic research group, a non-governmental organization, a for-profit company and federal agencies.

“When different types of organizations get together in a crisis, they quickly realize how much more can be accomplished, despite the added complexity of partnering,” said Youseph Yazdi, executive director of Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design. “If the world is going to effectively address big global challenges, we have to be willing to deal with the hassle and overhead of different players working together.”

Without the challenge from USAID, Johns Hopkins may never have developed the protective suit, Yazdi said. And without the agreement with DuPont, the suit may have forever remained a prototype.

Instead, it’s being evaluated by caregivers on the front lines in West Africa and refined for the marketplace.

America COMPETES Together

The America COMPETES Act, which gives agencies extensive authority to run challenges, encourages these kinds of public-private partnerships to find the most innovative solutions to problems of all scales.

The law authorizes agencies to “enter into an agreement with a private, nonprofit entity to administer a prize competition.” It also states that money for competition design, administration and the prize itself may consist of federally appropriated funds as well as “funds provided by the private sector for such cash prizes.”

Agencies may find it useful to partner with external organizations from the get-go or at any juncture along the way. Partners can bring a lot to the table, including:

  • Prize design expertise (scope, rules, judging criteria, etc.)
  • Prize operation and management (recruitment of participants, communications, screening of submissions, etc.)
  • Activities after the competition (feedback from partners and participants, lessons learned, etc.)

Still, agencies must weigh the pros and cons of selecting partners or formalizing agreements with them. For instance, while teaming with external organizations may defray costs, it also could mean relinquishing some control over a challenge. A Harvard University paper describes these trade-offs in more detail.

Innovation Collaboration

For the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it’s all about the different perspectives a good mix of partners bring to the table.

“We’re really finding out how far you can go by working with industry and other non-governmental partners to build ideas and projects,” said Joseph Ziobro, a physical scientist who is helping to lead EPA’s Nutrient Recycling Challenge. “If you build from the ground up and seek the input of partners from the beginning, the chances of success are greater.”

EPA formed a planning committee with representatives from 20 different organizations for the Nutrient Recycling Challenge, which seeks environmentally friendly and economically viable technologies that can extract useful nutrients from livestock manure.

The blend of government (the U.S. Department of Agriculture is also involved), industry and scientific experts on the committee is designed to address EPA’s priority of improving water quality while also providing livestock producers technology they actually can use.

“From concept to design to prototype, we want to make sure the technologies are getting developed in a way they could be used on a farm,” Ziobro said.

The agency and its partners set informal groups to hash out details of different parts of the competition: submission criteria; communications and messaging; judging panel and scoring rubric; and prizes and incentives.

“We invited everyone and let them choose their roles,” said Hema Subramanian, an environmental protection specialist at EPA who is also helping to lead the challenge.

But once the agency’s priority was made known, “we took our hands off the steering wheel and allowed industry experts to define the parameters,” Subramanian said.

The challenge is accepting concept paper submissions until Jan. 15. The partnerships EPA has formed will guide the competition through the review process and subsequent design, prototype and demonstration phases.

The last phase is expected to take place on actual livestock farms, just one more benefit of having partners outside of the government.