John Davis, a chemist inBloomington, Ill., knows about concrete. For example, he knows that ifyou keep concrete vibrating it won?t set up before you can use it. Itwill still pour like a liquid.
Now he has applied that knowledge to a seemingly unrelated problemthousands of miles away. He figured out that devices that keep concretevibrating can be adapted to keep oil in Alaskan storage tanks fromfreezing. The Oil Spill Recovery Institute of Cordova, Alaska, paid him$20,000 for his idea.
The chemist and the institute came together through InnoCentive, acompany that links organizations (seekers) with problems (challenges)to people all over the world (solvers) who win cash prizes forresolving them. The company gets a posting fee and, if the problem issolved, a ?finders fee? equal to about 40 percent of the prize.
The process, according to John Seely Brown, a theorist of information technology and former director of the XeroxPalo Alto Research Center, reflects ?a huge shift in popular culture,from consuming to participating? enabled by the interactivity socharacteristic of the Internet. It is sometimes called open-sourcescience, taking the name from open-source software in which the sourcecode, or original programming, is made public to encourage others towork on improving it.
The approach is catching on. Today, would-be innovators can sign uponline to compete for prizes for feats as diverse as landing on theMoon (space.xprize.org/lunar-lander-challenge) and inventing artificial meat (www.peta.org/feat_in_vitro_contest.asp).
This year, researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Washingtonbegan recruiting computer gamers to an online competition, namedFoldit, aimed at unraveling one of the knottiest problems of biology ?how proteins fold (http://fold.it).
And in a report last year, a panel appointed by the National Research Council recommended that the National Science Foundation,the major government financing agency for physical science research,offer prizes of $200,000 to $2 million ?in diverse areas? as a firststep in a major program ?to encourage more complex innovations?addressing economic, social and other challenges. (The report isavailable at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11816).
Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has proposed that the government offer $300 million to whoever invents a battery compact enough, powerful enough and cheap enough to replace fossil fuels.
Offering prizes for scientific achievements is hardly new. ?It hasbeen around for centuries,? said Karim R. Lakhani, a professor atHarvard Business School who has studied InnoCentive. One early examplewas the work of John Harrison, the 18th-century clockmaker who, inresponse to a prize offered by the British Parliament, solved theproblem of determining longitude at sea by inventing a clock that wouldkeep good time even in heavy weather.
But, Dr. Lakhani said, ?most laboratories, most R & D endeavorsstill work on the premise ?we can accumulate and make sense of all theknowledge that is relevant.? The open-source models and a model likeInnoCentive show that other approaches can help.?
Dwayne Spradlin, president and chief executive of InnoCentive, saidin an interview that the company had solved 250 challenges, for prizestypically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (www.innocentive.com),the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method ofpreventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.
?Odds are one or more products in your home has been innovated in our network,? Mr. Spradlin said. ?Procter & Gamble has products that were innovated on the InnoCentive network.?
InnoCentive began in 2000 as e.Lilly, an in-house innovation ?incubator? at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly,Mr. Spradlin said, with the company posting problems that its employeeshad been unable to solve. From the beginning the results were good, hesaid. ?Most of our companies tell us they have a one-third or bettersolve rate on their problems and that is more cost-effective thananything they could have done internally.?
The company says solvers come from 175 countries. More than a thirdhave doctorates, Mr. Spradlin said, and while motivated by money, theyalso have a desire to solve ?problems that matter.?
The company, with offices in Waltham, Mass., has a staff ofscientists who work with seekers and solvers, reviewing challenges tomake sure they are clear and detailed, and guiding would-be solvers whomay have a solution.
That specificity is crucial to InnoCentive?s operation, people whohave studied the company say. ?If you say, ?find me a cure for cancer?it may not work,? Dr. Lakhani said. But if problems can be ?decomposed?into what he called modular questions, like ?find me a biomarker forthis condition, these questions may be more tractable.?
The idea that solutions can come from anywhere, and from people withseemingly unrelated work, is another key. Dr. Lakhani said his study ofInnoCentive found that ?the further the problem was from the solver?sexpertise, the more likely they were to solve it,? often by applyingspecialized knowledge or instruments developed for another purpose.
For example, he said, the brain might be thought of as a biologicalsystem, but ?certain brain problems may not be solvable by taking abiological approach. You may want to cast it as an electricalengineering approach. An electrical engineer will come in and say, ?Oh,here?s the answer for you.? They have not thought of themselves asbeing neuroscientists but now they can approach the problem from thepoint of view of electrical engineering.?
The oil-flow problem was solved by an outsider, said Scott Pegau,its research program manager. If it could easily have been solved ?bypeople within the industry, it would have been,? he said. Instead, Mr.Davis approached it with knowledge he picked up at a friend?s concretebusiness.
One critical element is encouraging organizations to take novelinnovation approaches in the first place. That was the task that drewthe Rockefeller Foundation to the company, said Maria Blair, anassociate vice president there.
Ms. Blair said the foundation was nearing the end of an 18-monthpilot program after which the success of the partnership would beassessed. Anecdotal evidence so far suggests the arrangement can beuseful, she said, citing as an example a challenge to devise areliable, durable solar-powered light source that could function as aflashlight and as general room illumination.
?The solver ended up being a scientist from New Zealand,? she said, and his light is now being made in China.
?What we want to do,? she added, ?is connect the nonprofits to the platform, to InnoCentive.?
The nonprofits get a break on InnoCentive fees, Mr. Spradlin said,and Ms. Blair said the foundation could subsidize access to innovationplatforms. But she said many nonprofit organizations had difficultydealing with intellectual property rights and related issues.
InnoCentive deals with these issues, in part, by requiring winningsolvers to transfer intellectual property rights to the seekers, whoseidentities are secret, before they can claim an award.
Dr. Lakhani said some companies worried that by posting informationabout their problems they risk giving valuable information tocompetitors. Another fear, he said, is that a solver will devise auseful solution, but refuse to turn it over for the prize or evenpatent it to keep it out of the hands of the organization thatoriginally sought it.
?We have not observed yet any of these kinds of games,? Dr. Lakhani said.
By contrast, the Foldit contest is a volunteer effort. It began asRosetta@home, a project using down-time of computers throughout theworld to do the laborious calculations needed to determine the shapesof proteins, strings of amino acid crucial to the cells of every livingthing. The way these molecules work depends on how the strings fold,but calculating the folding is, as the Foldit researchers put it, ?oneof the pre-eminent challenges of biology.?
In Foldit, players will compete online to design proteins, andresearchers will test designs to see if they are good candidates foruse in drugs. The researchers who worked to design it say results willalso be interesting because people?s intuition for protein folding doesnot seem necessarily to be tied to formal training or laboratoryexperience.
?Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize,? said Zoran Popovic, a computer scientist and engineer at the University of Washington.
Mr. Spradlin?s goal for InnoCentive is at least as ambitious. By2011, he hopes InnoCentive participants will have answered at least10,000 challenges.
When companies and organizations have a problem, Mr. Spradlin said, ?I want us to be the first place they go.?
With thanks to Mettatation for sharing this wonderful photograph of a collaborative "grandmother quilt" on Flckr. Pls click on the photo for other photos in Mettatation's stream and for full documentation.