David H. Tracy

Posted by Liz Moise on Apr 29, 2008 5:54:05 PM

I'm relatively new to InnoCentive, with two awards under my belt. Someone told me about InnoCentive back in 2004. I checked it out, was definitely intrigued by the concept and quickly joined as a Solver. Both the challenge of attacking novel real problems and the prospect of actually getting paid for doing so were highly attractive. I regularly checked out the Challenges posted, but for several years I didn't take the plunge and submit a solution. Why not? Partly it was the subject matter - I'm a physicist, and most of the early problems needed a chemistry or biochemistry background. Also, I was pretty busy with my "day jobs," technical consulting and local volunteer work. But there was another factor - I wasn't sure if the InnoCentive approach was right for me.

Would it be a good use of my time and um, talents? Would it be difficult to craft and submit solutions without actually talking to the Seekers? And what were the odds - could I really compete against 140,000 solvers worldwide.

Finally, in 2007, a flood of problems appeared on InnoCentive that I felt I could get my teeth into. The number of disciplines represented continues to grow rapidly. It also became apparent, in looking at the specifics of these problems, that the InnoCentive model had some interesting advantages for Solvers.

Much has been written in the blogosphere about the benefits of "open innovation" for companies and organizations in need of fresh ideas and solutions to R&D problems, but relatively little about the upsides and downsides for scientists and engineers - the Solvers in InnoCentive's parlance. To me, it gradually became apparent that InnoCentive offered opportunities and stimulating challenges that were almost entirely incremental to my conventional means of drumming up business.

Typically, the InnoCentive Challenges I found attractive were well business-as-usual. My ideas for solving them, and the resulting IP, were almost always brand new and didn't come out of some finite reservoir of professional secrets or insights that I felt I needed to hoard and protect.

Coming up with Solutions is gratifying, even if sometimes agonizing. But ironing out the details, writing them down and submitting them can be actual work! Would it be worth the time and energy?

In my previous full-time work life in R&D, as well as in my consulting work, I have been used to dealing face to face with "customers." Working out a "solution" to their "problem" is then the result of a two-way discussion, in which everyone's needs, expectations and capabilities gradually become clear. If there is a mismatch between needs and capabilities, it usually becomes clear at an early stage, before a lot of time has been invested. If a solution is eventually found, it is generally the result of a give-and take process, rather than a unilateral response to a problem specification.

With the double-blind submission process which is necessary to the InnoCentive model, it appeared to me that things would be very different. Submitting a Solution is somewhat analogous to submitting a competitive Grant Application, in which the persons ultimately evaluating the applications are unknown to the applicants, and their mindsets and the criteria they use to pick a winner can be only partially understood. This puts a premium on clearly explaining the proposed Solution, so that misunderstanding can be avoided.

InnoCentive scientists clearly play a major role in crafting the Challenge specifications, which results in a consistent degree of clarity about the essential Solution Requirements. This filtering role however, is bound to make the thinking of the anonymous Seekers behind the challenge a little more inscrutable. In most cases, there are details of the problem specification or parameters that legitimately need clarification. I have found that addressing thoughtful and relevant questions to the InnoCentive science team can sometimes elicit answers from the seekers which really help me to understand their needs better and which give useful clues on how best to explain the solution in their terms.

But what of the odds? I'm a good enough mathematician (barely) to know better than to play the lottery. Not every Challenge results in an acceptable solution (aside from the new Ideation Challenges, which have a guaranteed award) and some exciting challenges apparently attract many Solvers. If I thought that a given Challenge would attract, say, 100 strong solutions - solutions likely to be roughly as wonderful as mine - then I might choose not to invest the time needed to create and submit a solution with just a 1% probability of winning.

However, these odds are largely unknowable in advance, so what is a poor prospective Solver to do? I decided to perform the experiment - try few submissions and see what happens. So, over the last year I started on eight or ten Challenges, of which I actually submitted Solutions for half a dozen. I put varying amounts of effort into them (as little as a day in one case!). The result so far has been 2 awards out of the 6 submissions. And the ones that won weren’t even necessarily my favorites - the competition seems to be pretty fierce. A statistician will tell you that these are small numbers from which to draw any strong conclusions, but I for one am highly encouraged. I’m not quitting my "day jobs" just yet, but I think a Phase II experiment is definitely in order.

If you've been sitting on the fence, you may want to do your own little study - just be sure to submit enough solutions to make it a fair test!

Topics: Solvers

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