The Frontal Cortex

InnoCentive

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.

Comments

  1. #1 notsofast
    February 20, 2008

    InnoCentive is indeed a unique approach and it does demonstrate the ability of a type of ‘crowd sourcing’ for rapid and innovative problem solving.

    My enthusiasm, however, is dampened by the idea of this becoming anything other than a narrow, niche market type of approach. The ‘winners’ sign over all intellectual property, and in exchange get something similar to maybe 0.5 – 1 yr of a postdoc level salary. Imagine if industries and research started to move to this direction in a big way? As if employment conditions and IP issues aren’t bad enough already for so many of us, what with many researchers underpaid on short term contracts? At least with regular employment one is also getting (some) stability, (some) benefits, and (some) IP or patent rights. This InnoCentive model is the equivalent of ‘work for spec’ in the graphic design industry, where you front up all the work with no pay in the hopes that your submission will get chosen. It’s a dangerous precedent and given cutbacks nowadays, is only going to be on the rise.

    Most scientific discoveries still require teams of committed people who are properly bankrolled, both in terms of personally as well as the project. I think approaches such as InnoCentive offer a unique niche-market solution to certain limited problems, but are a dangerous way to consider doing business. Dangerous for working scientists and dangerous for science itself.

  2. #2 Liz Moise
    February 20, 2008

    First of all, thanks for a fantastic post. We are equally excited about the potential that our Solver Network gives businesses as they look for innovative ways to solver their R&D challenges. If you ever want more info on us, please feel free to contact me directly. I’d like to link to your blog post in our February Newsletter, if you don’t mind!

    I’d like to address the comment by ‘notsofast’. I want to stress that the award amounts for each Challenge are determined by the Seeker and are designed to match the level of effort involved. Some Seekers are purely looking for an idea, others are looking for an entirely proven concept. Our awards range from a small $5,000 up to 1 million dollars. We encourage our Solvers to collaborate when they find it helpful. We don’t want to imply that our business model will work for every business scenario, and you make a valid point.

    Regards,
    Liz Moise
    Marketing Manager
    InnoCentive

  3. #3 notsofast
    February 20, 2008

    Hi again,

    Just to clarify, my post is not meant as a criticism of InnoCentive itself. I think it’s an approach that does work for a certain type of problem. My concern is on much larger scale, which is the issue in science / engineering of an increasing tendency towards very specific, short term contract work and/or ‘work for spec’. There is room on the spectrum for all types of approaches to scientific problems, but I remain very concerned about the larger direction of scientific employment and employee rights, benefits, and IP assignments. InnoCentive fills a niche but I hope the scientific industry as a whole will beware about thinking this approach is universally applicable or is a ‘good idea’ as a solution for narrowing funding issues. The larger scale approach in research and industry can’t be that scientists all end up as freelancers, which I know some companies would love to see because it’s cheaper short term. And science will not yield larger scale discoveries this way either.

  4. #4 John Lobell
    February 21, 2008

    It is interesting to speculate about the mindset behind notsofast’s position. Does it propose that we should all be cocooned within large organizations? Is it an attack on individual freedom of action and expression under the guise of domesticating all of us in nanny organizations with their benefits packages?

    Yes, we need research centers that provide stable employment and long-time commitment of major recourses, but how do we know that InnoCentive’s model will not also yield results?

    A research laboratory is encumbered by its internal politics and economic model, and may not be free to explore ideas outside of its culture, while hundreds or even thousands of individuals and small temporary teams may be able to explore hundreds or thousands of new innovative approaches.

    In addition, not all of us are suited to work in large organizations, even though we might have the potential to do productive and possibly innovate work. This model gives such people an opportunity they never had before, and potentially harness the talents of many who could not previously make contributions. Nosofast raises the issue of IP, which is basically the issue of fair compensation, with the implication that innovators are always fairly compensated in today’s world. They are not. As the model matures, I suspect that fair compensation will sort itself out.

    Notsofast refers to “an increasing tendency towards very specific, short term contract work and/or ‘work for spec’”. Some in R&D seek the comfort of long-time employment, but some of us live for the project. All the rest is a long death.

    Finally, notofast does not demonstrate that InnoCentive’s model is a threat to large established organizations. Why can’t they compete on these projects also?

  5. #5 notsofast
    February 21, 2008

    John, I went out of my way to voice a direct criticism of InnoCentive and their business model is certainly a viable one. However, the fact is that we need a range of employment opportunities for scientists to keep their lives viable. It can’t be that we all start getting paid based on results, not on work, and this is the aspect to this I am uncomfortable with. You are correct that I do not “demonstrate” this as a threat to all organizations. However, whether industry or academia, there has been a noticeable downturn in steady paid positions in many fields.

    “Not all of us are suited to work in large organizations”. Absolutely, and I don’t work in one of these either, as you seem to want to imply. But working freelance, consulting, or short term, is not the same thing as ‘work for spec’, and it’s not the same thing as signing away complete IP rights in exchange for getting paid, either. This is my sticking point. As for “with the implication that innovators are always fairly compensated in today’s world”, nowhere did I imply that. If anything, models where total IP rights are exchanged for pay just further erode the minimal rights many of us already have difficulty to obtain. That also sounds suspiciously like “nobody gets decent X, so why talk about it”.

  6. #6 notsofast
    February 21, 2008

    Sorry, I meant to say,

    “I went out of my way NOT to voice a direct criticism of InnoCentive, and their business model is certainly a viable one. “

  7. #7 Liz Moise
    February 21, 2008

    John you make a great point. We see organizations augmenting, not replacing their R&D programs with incentive based outside innovation programs, including those like InnoCentive. Balanced properly, organizations may marry the power of strong internal programs with “on demand” access to specific external talents focused on well defined problems, ultimately improving the outcomes for the organizations and those that depend upon them. For those like John, who live for the project, InnoCentive provides a fantastic source of revenue, and a chance to make a difference.

  8. #8 arive
    February 29, 2008

    While I do agree that a challenge award may be a few months salary for a person in industry there is another reality which is that scientists working in very specific areas or projects do not necessarily get to know what it is happening elsewhere, even in the next lab of the same company/institution.

    InnoCentive on the other hand, opens a challenge (in one very specific area) and there are thousands of people from all areas of knowledge who can participate to solve it. Which means that someone working in a completely different division/company/Country/institute/discipline can come up with a solution. May be companies and Institutes should follow the same system (internally if they want to).

    Thus, someone solving an Innocentive challenge would have never thought of a solution otherwise, if it is not because the challenge was “popped out” and curiosity and creativity took place. People in other disciplines, other parts of the World, amateurs, students… anybody can now see real industrial problems and provide different views on how to tackle them. In most cases solutions would need to be tested/selected anyway and the seeker company will require its own scientists to do so.

    All this might bring some competition to people in industry but it would be a fair competition. Beside and more importantly will also recognise the creativity of others and reward them accordingly. Finally, if all this accelerates development then everybody is a winner.

    Industry with some problems without solutions and solvers with (possible) solutions without knowing the problems… are brought together by InnoCentive.

  9. #9 August Pamplona
    September 8, 2010

    The study’s observation are interesting.

    Anecdotally, I’m an Innocentive solver who was found to have come up with a proposal judged best by a seeker. I suspect that the reason my solution was found to be useful is because it was a molecular biology solution to something which was not posed as a molecular biology problem. I cannot confirm this, however, as the solutions of other solvers are not publicly viewable.

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