Have you heard about InnoCentive? It’s my new favorite website. The premise of the site is simple: “seekers” post their scientific problems and “solvers” try to solve them. If the problem is successfully solved, then the “solver” gets a specified monetary reward. (The money is the incentive part of InnoCentive.) The questions on the site are astonishingly varied, and include everything from a food company looking for a “Reduced Fat Chocolate-Flavored Compound Coating” (Reward: $40,000) to a research foundation looking for a “Biomarker for measuring disease progression in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis” ($1,000,000) to an electronics firm trying to design a “solar-powered wireless router” ($20,000). More than one hundred thousand solvers have registered on the site, with people coming from every conceivable scientific discipline and more than 170 countries.
But what I find most interesting about InnoCentive is its success rate. A study of InnoCentive led by researchers at Harvard Business School found that nearly 33 percent of the problems posted on the website were solved within the specified time frame. In other words, a disparate network of strangers and amateurs managed to solve problems that companies like Eli Lilly, General Electric and Procter and Gamble – companies with thousands of scientists and huge research budgets – had been unable to solve internally. Sometimes, the problems were solved within days.
By studying which particular problems were solved, and by tracking the efforts of “solvers” as they worked together in online “problem rooms,” the Harvard researchers could see what, exactly, made some problems more solvable than others. The key was intellectual diversity. If a molecular biology problem just attracted molecular biologists, then it tended to remain intractable. But if that same problem managed to attract a molecular biologist, a biophysicist, an organic chemist and a statistician then, chances are, the problem tended to get solved. Even more interesting, perhaps, is that problem solvers were most effective at the margins of their fields of expertise. Chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems: they solved molecular biology problems.
Alpheus Bingham, the Eli Lilly executive who started InnoCentive likes to tell a story about the site that demonstrates this intellectual diversity at work. It involves a seeker company that was trying to invent a polymer with a very unique and perplexing set of chemical properties. “Nobody was optimistic that InnoCentive could help the client,” Bingham says. After a few months, however, solvers on the website came up with five different solutions to the problem. “The company paid for all of the solutions,” Bingham says. “They paid awards to a person who studies carbohydrates in Sweden, a small agribusiness leader, a retired aerospace engineer, a veterinarian, and a transdermal drug delivery systems specialist. I guarantee that they would have found none of those people within their own company. They would have found none of those people if they had done a literature search in the field of interest. They would have found none of them by soliciting input from their consultants.” The problem seemed intractable because the people trying to solve it were locked into a particular way of thinking.
I think the success of InnoCentive is yet another reminder that inter-disciplinary teams are a crucial source of scientific creativity. You never know where the breakthrough is going to come from.