Lessons Learned from NIH: Challenges Catalyzing Development in the Health Sciences

Did you know that challenges can be traced all the way back to 1418? In fact, The Duomo in Florence, Italy, was designed through a structural design competition, and the winning designer was awarded 2,000 Florins. In 1714, the Longitude Prize was offered by the British government through an Act of Parliament and was offered to a person who could design a simple and practical method to determine a ship’s longitude.  Prizes and competitions are not a new architecture of driving competition- they have been around for centuries and continue to promote and support innovation in today’s society when structured the right way. This posting will explore some examples of how health sciences have benefited from open innovation and share some best practices for challenge design and implementation that were highlighted at a recent open innovation conference. In summary, the success of a challenge will largely depend on properly articulating the problem statement, selecting submission criteria and requirements that aren’t overly burdensome, marketing and communicating the challenge to the right people, and encouraging viral marketing to ensure other fields of expertise have an opportunity to participate as well.

Open Innovation at Work in the Health Sciences…

 Crowdsourcing: The Art and Science of Open Innovation Conference, hosted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), took place on Monday, July 18th and focused on opening conversations between the field of science and the open innovation circle. When it comes to health science in particular, open innovation is one important way to help consumers find the best care, journalists raise awareness, and government make smarter policies and investments. Furthermore, the conference made sure to emphasize that health science innovation is not done by only the government; in fact some very interesting health science advances have been achieved through prizes and games spearheaded by the private sector.

  •  Designing new molecules with games: Dr. Adrien Treuille, an assistant professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University  spoke of how open innovation and public engagement gave him the power to create computer games, such as Foldit and EteRNA. These games use the creative power and intelligence of the public to design and fold proteins and RNA in order to design new molecules (also read the NY Times Article on the game).
  • Understanding Lou Gehrig’s disease through prizes: Dr. Melanie Leitner, Chief Operating Officer and Chief Scientific Officer for Prize4Life, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to accelerating the discovery for a cure for ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, spoke about how Prize4Life encourages innovation and creative thinking to find cures to some of the most fatal diseases. In 2006, they launched their $1 million Biomarker Prize, a prize awarded to someone who could develop a biomarker, a tool that can help measure the progression of ASL in those affected with the disease. The contest concluded in February of this year when the prize was awarded to Dr. Seward Rutkove (learn more about the Biomarker Prize and Prize4Life).

Challenge Best Practices from the Mouths of the Experts…

Even though the fields of expertise of the presenters at the Open Innovation Conference varied drastically, there were three overarching themes that emerged when designing and launching a challenge:

1). Take the Time to Properly Define the Problem:  This is the most important aspect of designing a challenge. According to Dr. Jeffery Davis, Director of the Space Life Sciences Directorate and the Chief Medical Officer for the NASA Johnson Space Center, an agency should first evaluate its current portfolio to identify the problems that are most important. Challenges should complement the entire portfolio of actions of a program or agency (grants, contracts, other assistance, R&D programs, etc…) to drive innovation in areas where prizes could stimulate thinking and investment. A strategic approach to the use of prizes in overall government problem solving is paramount.

Furthermore, it is imperative to articulate the question very clearly and intentionally, as one problem can be structured into a challenge in a variety of ways. Dr. Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School said that sometimes deliberately defining a problem broadly and focusing on multi-domain issues can encourage more people to participate. It gives people the opportunity to think outside the box and allows the organization to receive a wide range of solutions to a potential problem. Though defining the problem is not always easy and can take a lot of time in itself.  Without an intentionally scoped problem statement, it could become extremely difficult to manage a challenge. Furthermore, setting realistic goals for the solver community will position the prize sponsor better for success.

2). Reach out to Non-Traditional Communities: Part of the success associated with challenges is harnessing enthusiasm across a wide variety of fields of expertise. Challenges encourage people to use their knowledge and ideas in ways their normal environment might not encourage. Dr. Eva Guinan, a pediatric hematologist oncologist, conducts open innovation challenges in the academic biomedical setting. In one of her most recent challenges, she mentioned that over 50% of the submissions were from outside the academic community. These ideas brought a new way of thinking to the problem at hand, ideas that might not have been generated if promoted only within a particular community. Furthermore, it is imperative to find a partner in the communities you are trying to reach. Support and buy-in of key players can encourage and welcome innovative participation that might not otherwise come to the table.

3. Lower the Barrier to Participate in Challenges: The easier it is for people to participate in challenges, the greater the chance of finding a winning and implementable solution to your challenge. The government has already made substantial progress in this field, with detailed guidance on when prizes are the right tools and legal support through the America COMPETES Act. Utilizing available technical support, such as Challenge.gov, can give you an easy way to construct and promote a challenge in a simple and free manner.

Prizes and challenges are one important way to distribute, create, and incentivize innovative ideas and solutions. They have been adopted at an even faster rate in government than many expected. In fact, last week, Health and Human Services (HHS) released a challenges toolkit for its employees explaining how they should go about conducting their own challenge under the authority of America COMPETES. Stay tuned for many more agencies laying the groundwork for these innovative tactics. Furthermore, they give the public another way to get involved with their government. To see how you can get involved in Federal challenges and help to innovate on a variety of topics from application development to cancer research check out www.challenge.gov. You too can contribute to the innovation of our Nation.