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Eyes on the Prize: How Competitions Foster Collaborations and Creativity

March 26, 2024—Motivating innovation can be elusive, but innovation prize challenges are a proven path to generate excitement and inspire breakthroughs. With a defined finish line and a healthy dose of competition, contests that encourage research and innovation are tools to help companies address complex problems and identify new partners from unexpected places. At the same time, competitors gain access to new resources, take their place in the spotlight, and bring home the prize. This July, UIDP will co-convene a workshop with the University of Cambridge Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (CSTI) examining the success elements for large-scale challenge-based programs driving innovation. From overarching challenges to specialized contests, these programs and events drive discoveries that can help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Real challenges

Over 20 years ago, DARPA held its first Grand Challenge, inviting teams to create technologies for autonomous vehicles and race their creations along a 150-mile race track for a $1 million grand prize (Stanford University’s modified Volkswagen came out on top). Last summer, DARPA announced another challenge, this time on AI and cybersecurity. With nearly $30 million in prizes, the challenge gives competitors access to expertise and technology from Anthropic, Google, Microsoft, and OpenAI to enable breakthrough solutions. The contest culminates during a competition at an industry conference in 2025—offering finalists exceptional exposure.

The XPRIZE Foundation is a non-profit organization that hosts public competitions in diverse topics: biodiversity and conservation; climate and energy; deep tech and quantum; food, water, and waste; health; learning and society; and space and exploration. Some prizes are sponsored by companies in a particular field, such as the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE. Companies frequently host the competition themselves, like the Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, Future Insight Prize, which rewards achievements in science and technology areas important for the future of humanity (this year’s topic: fighting pandemics using AI). The prize awards up to €1 million to incentivize significant breakthroughs.

A Wall Street Journal article on using competitions to solve the world’s problems cites the Vesuvius Challenge, which pooled expertise into incentivized global teams to decipher ancient carbonized scrolls discovered at Mount Vesuvius. The winning team was a trio of researchers from Germany, the United States, and Switzerland who decoded a portion of the text using machine learning models. The Vesuvius Challenge is funded by the Musk Foundation and other private investors.

Prizes and drawbacks

Research and innovation competitions can come in myriad shapes and sizes with different funding sources, prize amounts, teams, and research foci. Challenges are often an open call, increasing the potential for previously unknown competitors to bring creative ideas and diverse insights. Because they set their own rules and challenge criteria, funders don’t risk losing their investment without getting the desired results. Some platforms, like Yet2 and NineSigma, exist to help connect researchers with funders. While prizes might be smaller than those offered by larger-scale competitions, researchers still get rewarded for their work on industry-focused interests.

Importantly, these contests leverage the human impulse to compete. Wanting to win can be a powerful motivator for an intense, focused effort, especially when the contest is a race for a solution. For challenge sponsors, that means results may come faster compared to traditional research pathways.

Of course, research and innovation contests come with their own complications. Some may not return tangible results—or at least, not quickly (solving the 165-year-old Riemann hypothesis in mathematics could win you a cool $1 million). There’s also the chance that teams don’t reach the finish line in the defined timeframe, as was the case with the original DARPA Grand Challenge. But challenges spark innovation and often produce new ideas, contribute to the knowledge base, and find solutions for tough problems.

Why it matters

With a growing focus on pressing challenges, we need compelling ways to get creative ideas flowing (and funded). Contests build excitement, motivating and rewarding researchers who answer the call to compete. They can pave the way for breakthroughs or bring diverse minds together to solve a problem collaboratively. By setting clear goals and fostering a healthy sense of competition, these contests for research and innovation help uncover the answers to thorny questions and serve as a complement to other forms of technology development.

We want to hear from you. Has your organization ever taken part in a discovery-driven competition? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.