Monday, October 6, 2008

Calling All Ideators, Gearheads, and Entrepreneurs

by Kristin Schneeman, Program Director, FasterCures

As many of you who follow what we do at FasterCures know, we’ve been interested for a while in the approach to innovation taken by InnoCentive, a Web site on which "seekers" can post problems to be tackled by a universe of "solvers," many of them from entirely different disciplines. Born out of a need to open up innovation within the pharmaceutical industry, the site is now beginning to be used by groups like the "Prize for Life" challenge to find a biomarker for ALS, and the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development.

FasterCures and the folks at InnoCentive are now embarking on an experiment together by posting an Ideation Challenge on the site, one of the company’s first "Public Policy and Citizens in Action" challenges seeking solutions to important issues facing society. We’re hoping to benefit from the "wisdom of the crowd" by asking for novel approaches and/or incentives that might induce companies to invest more in biomarkers research and qualification.

Within a day of posting the challenge we were pleasantly surprised to see that there were dozens of "project rooms" opened by individuals interested in possibly submitting a solution; by the end of the week there were more than a hundred. The proof will be in the pudding, of course. This sort of challenge is quite different from the ones that have become InnoCentive’s bread and butter (with apologies for mixing my food metaphors).

InnoCentive’s successes can be attention-grabbing. One example is a challenge posted by the Ocean Spill Recovery Institute to solve a thorny problem that has long hampered cleanup efforts from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, among others: the difficulty of separating frozen oil from water in collection barges. A chemist from the concrete industry proposed an approach based on a technique that has been used for years to move liquid concrete; he won $20,000, and the oil industry solved a decades-old problem within two months after posting it on the Web.

Nonprofits are beginning to use InnoCentive with success to help solve problems of poverty and disease in the developing world, as well. A Rockefeller Foundation-sponsored challenge produced a design for a compact milling machine that would allow rural farmers in India to increase their income to as much as $30 a day. The solver is a self-described "ideator, gearhead, and entrepreneur" – probably not someone in Rockefeller’s network of usual suspects.

Our challenge is a good deal less concrete than these, but no less important or in need of innovative thinking. We’re eager to see what kinds of responses we get back after the November 15th deadline. We could have tapped likely academics or consultants to write us a paper on overcoming the challenges of biomarker research and qualification. But for now we say, bring on the ideators, the gearheads, and the entrepreneurs!

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