Changing the World Through Philanthropic Prizes

Changing the World Through Philanthropic Prizes

Corporations have long understood the value of crowdsourcing to improve product development life cycles, production methods, and their own business models. And today, open innovation is providing ideas that fundamentally challenge conventional thinking in areas such as policy, strategy, research, product development, collaboration, and even intellectual property. The most compelling aspect of open innovation, however, is its power to better our world and create global impact, which means that as nonprofit organizations embrace crowdsourcing, harnessing the power of many minds and working to solve problems through prize-based innovation, the potential for everyone to make a difference becomes exponential.

As longtime practitioners of open innovation, InnoCentive has witnessed an extraordinary increase in innovation efficiency in recent years, a development that has had an especially profound effect on philanthropy. Indeed, through our network, some 200,000 "solvers" in more than two hundred countries have been able to work on projects that speak to their passions, driving up productivity several-fold and allowing the solvers to earn sizeable rewards while maintaining a work/life balance never before possible.

Our solvers are also driven by the knowledge that what is good for us as individuals may also be good for us as members of an increasingly interdependent global community. By and large, their work on these causes are not about financial gains; they are about having an impact on the world.

This is truer today than ever. Ever since the giant Deepwater Horizon rig caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico and sank, rupturing the rig's riser pipe and creating an underwater leak that is spilling 200,000 gallons of crude into the waters of the gulf every day, I've been thinking about how open innovation might help resolve this environmental disaster. This week, we launched a challenge looking for innovative solutions that can slow the leak and address cleanup in the Gulf. There is no financial reward for this challenge, and our solvers are answering the call with truly innovative solutions that will be forwarded to the proper agencies, as they have in the past.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, for example, Congress established the Oil Spill Recovery Institute in Cordova, Alaska. Tasked with improving oil spill response in Arctic and sub-Arctic marine waters, OSRI leveraged open innovation to challenge solvers around the world to come up with a way to separate oil from water in recovery barges. The organization received a winning solution from solver John Davis, a chemist from Illinois, who had spent a summer pouring concrete. Davis learned that if you keep concrete moving, even slightly, it won't set. That knowledge helped Davis realize that, with some modifications, concrete vibrators could be used to break up the thick layer of crude floating on the surface Prince William Sound and restore some viscosity to the slushy mix. Davis eventually earmarked some of his $20,000 prize to help finance additional research into environmental clean up and soil remediation.

The Global Alliance for TB Drug Development (TB Alliance) is a nonprofit product development partnership that is working to accelerate the discovery and development of new and improved drugs to treat tuberculosis. As a nonprofit, the alliance does not have the luxury of an entire department devoted to optimizing manufacturing processes like those found in large pharmaceutical companies. But in crowdsourcing, the alliance saw a unique driver that could be used to leverage intellectual resources around the world to find a way to simplify the manufacturing process of one of its most advanced compounds, thereby lowering the drug's cost. The challenge was successfully solved by a doctor who was motivated by personal passion rather than money. Dr. Kana Sureshan grew up in India, and his mother was the family's only breadwinner. When Dr. Sureshan was fourteen, his mother developed TB and had to stop working. Kana became the family's breadwinner, working his through high school and college and helping to pay for his mother's medication. Dr. Sureshan's biggest reward in developing a solution to the alliance's problem was knowing that a cost-effective manufacturing process for the drug would directly benefit millions of people around the globe.

Mark Bent of SunNight Solar is a former U.S. diplomat who spent time in Africa, where he saw firsthand what people have to go through on a daily basis to feed, clothe, and house their families. What he witnessed there eventually led Bent to found SunNight Solar, a company that uses the latest scientific advances in solar and lighting technology to provide light to low-income people in developing countries. Already a success, Bent's company tapped into crowdsourcing to improve the design of its solar flashlight, which was liked by customers but not powerful enough to illuminate an entire room and thus a poor substitute for kerosene lanterns, the cause of many fires and fatalities in developing countries. After trying, and failing, to develop a more powerful flashlight based on based on feedback from the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Energy, Bent turned to InnoCentive and, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, connected with a solver in New Zealand who provided him with a design for a flashlight that could illuminate an entire room and still function as a handheld. SunNight Solar quickly began production of the improved design.

What is even more remarkable is SunNight's Buy One, Get One (BoGo) program. For every flashlight it sells, SunNight Solar will match the purchase and send a light to a location of the purchaser's choice. The program has been so successful that SunNight decided to create separate programs to deliver flashlights to military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as families living without power in the Gaza strip. The company also has plans to manufacture and market variations of its flashlight, including a light that cures jaundice in infants via blue LEDs.

The point is simple yet profound: There is extraordinary potential in philanthropic prizes, and we are only beginning to see that potential tapped in ways that focus attention on and identify solutions to some of the planet's most urgent challenges. Through the crowdsourced prize model, driven, creative, socially aware people are venturing into new areas, taking risks, and developing new approaches to age-old problems. The examples above are just a snapshot of the amazing philanthropic work currently under way, but they give us a new understanding of and an appreciation for the possibilities that lie ahead. Won't you join us?

Dwayne Spradlin is president and CEO of InnoCentive, Inc. He can be reached at