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May 24, 2016

Incentivized competitions boost innovation

The last decade has witnessed a tremendous advance in technological innovations. This is also thanks to the growing diffusion of open innovation platforms, which have leveraged on the explosion of social network and digital media to promote a new culture of “bottom-up” discovery and invention.

An example of the potential of open innovation to revolutionize technology and science is provided by online crowdfunding sites for creative projects, such Kickstarter and Indiegogo. In the last few years, these online platforms have supported thousands of projects, including extremely innovative products such as the headset Oculus, which has contributed to the renaissance of Virtual Reality.


Incentivized competitions represent a further strategy for engaging the public and gathering innovative ideas on a global scale. This approach consists in identifying the most interesting challenges and inviting the community to solve them.

One of the first and most popular incentivized competitions is the Ansari X-Prize, celebrating this year its 10th anniversary. Funded by the Ansari family, the Ansari X-Prize challenged teams from around the world to build a reliable, reusable, privately financed, manned spaceship capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the Earth's surface twice within two weeks. The prize was awarded in 2004 to Mojave Aereospace Ventures and since then, the award has contributed to create a new private space industry. Recently, X-Prize has introduced spin-off for-profit venture HeroX, a kind of “Kickstarter” of X-Prize-type competitions. The platform allows anyone to post their own competition.

Those who think they have the best solution can then submit their entries to win a cash prize. Another successful incentivized contest is Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, offering a US$7 million grand prize, US$2 million second prize, and US$1 million third prize to the best among the finalists offering an automatic non-invasive health diagnostics packaged into a single portable device that weighs no more than 5 pounds (2.3 kg), able to diagnose over a dozen medical conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, mononucleosis, shingles, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis.

Incentivized competitions have proven effective in supporting the solution to global issues and develop powerful new visions of the future that can potentially impact the lives of billions of people. The reason of such effectiveness is related to the “format” of these competitions.

Open idea contests include clear and well-defined objectives, which can be measured objectively in terms of performance/outcome, and a significant amount of financial resources to achieve those objectives. Further, incentive competitions target only “stretch goals”, very ambitious (and risky) objectives that require very innovative strategies and original methodologies in order to be addressed.

Incentive competitions are also very “democratic”, in the sense that they are not limited to academic teams or research organizations, but are open to the involvement of large and small companies, start-ups, governments and even single individuals.

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