The InnoCentive Insider: Surprising but True

Posted by Connie French on May 7, 2009 5:36:08 PM

Peter Lohse InnoCentive Client ServicesIn today's InnoCentive Insider, Peter Lohse talks about the curious fact that many Challenges are awarded to Solvers with expertise outside of the Challenge field.

It has been more than six years since I joined InnoCentive and I continue to be fascinated by the business model and the success we have with delivering solutions to our Clients. Our success rate overall was around 30% at the end of 2005 and is now quickly approaching the 50% mark (on average, for Theoretical and RTP Challenges). We do not have an empirical basis yet for comparing this outcome with the effectiveness of internally focused solution efforts. However, considering that many of the Seekers had been unsuccessful in finding a solution to these problems on their own, I would say the solution rate is quite spectacular.

Much of the praise for this success goes to our Solvers. They are the brains, experimenters and composers behind the winning proposals. The Client Services Team at InnoCentive is in the privileged position to be a first hand witness to our Solvers' tremendous creativity.  Each of us has seen hundreds of successful submissions, hence we have a pretty good understanding of how a proposal should be formulated to have the potential for winning an award. These learnings are available to all of our Solvers through the InnoCentive newsletter or through this Blog. For example recent postings from my colleagues Lisa Reinhold, Eugene Ivanov and Michael Albarelli provide valuable insights in this regard.  While we believe that Solvers who follow these guidelines will submit proposals which are more likely to be successful, we recognize that factors other than the form of a Solver submission will have an influence on winning an award. It's some these other factors that I would like to discuss.

The Study

In 2005 we teamed with up Karim Lakhani and Lars Jeppesen, both working at MIT's Sloan Business School at the time to conduct a study on the effectiveness of problem solving at InnoCentive.  In this study, regression analysis was employed to correlate solution success with Challenge characteristics like Challenge type, award size and posting period.  In the context of this study we also conducted a web-based survey to examine Solver motivation in the solution finding process.  The study design and results have been published as an HBS working paper which is freely available on the internet at Please note that this study considers Theoretical and Reduction to Practice Challenges only.  The Ideation and eRFP Challenge were only launched later and were not part of this study.

The study results were very well received by many with an interest in open innovation.  They presented one of the first attempts to quantify and analyze success when sharing information about difficult and unsolved scientific problems to large group of "unknown" outsiders.

What it Means for Solvers

Besides the insights  the study provides to organizations which consider a "broadcast setting" for solving problems, I think that there are a number of findings which should also be interesting to problem Solvers:

  • One of them was that problem solving success was found to be associated with the ability to attract specialized Solvers with a range of diverse scientific interests.
  • Related to this, and perhaps not quite as intuitive, successful Solvers solved problems at the boundary or outside their fields of expertise, indicating a transfer of knowledge from one field to another.

This latter finding is based on the self-assessed distance between the Solver's field of expertise and the discipline of the Challenge.  The increase in probability was small (ca. 10%) but significant.  Even though somewhat counter-intuitive, I think it makes sense that somebody who is an outsider to a field can look at problem with fresh eyes and is less bothered by the do's and don'ts which might prevent insiders from submitting a truly revolutionary solution proposal.

The Aftermath

After the results had been published in 2006 the study was regularly cited in the press, blogs and on websites as a reference to success in an open innovation setting. In some cases though, the results were interpreted a little too enthusiastically for my taste.   For example, one blog commented on the finding of cross-pollination saying that  "....chemists were better suited to solving life biology problems and vice- versa ..."  - a statement which is pretty far from reality in my view.  I think there are many problems where cross-pollination can be important e.g. Challenges where new materials are sought and where solutions from many disciplines including chemistry, biology, material science, physics etc. may apply. However, that a biologist contributes effectively to an organic synthesis Challenge is rather unlikely unless that biologist has a deep understanding of the structure formalism and reactivity concepts used in organic chemistry.  The same holds true vice versa for the chemist.

What it Really Means for You

To me a likely reason that submissions from outside of the Challenge discipline have a somewhat increased probability of success is that the Seeker had probably already tried many approaches which are common sense within the discipline of the Challenge.  So, when a Seeker works with InnoCentive they expect new and unusual perspectives and are probably more likely to reward the new and unconventional proposal.  Of course, being different does not necessarily mean that the proposed approach is a solution. What is important is that the solution is different but also relevant to the problem. Hence demonstrating the relevance of a Solver's different perspective to the Seeker's problem is critical to success in our view. Those Solvers who explain clearly and in detail, step by step, as to why the proposed approach meets the requirements of the Challenge will more likely become award winners. Not surprisingly the results of the study also show that the time invested by the Solver in developing the solution is significantly and positively correlated with winning an award.

In Summary

In summary, new and unconventional ideas are important for success.  InnoCentive is the Seekers' platform of choice for harnessing these.  However, submitting an "unconventional" proposal is not enough; the proposed solution needs to be carefully matched to the Seeker's needs.  In other words, Solvers need to commit to a carefully drafted solution proposal which explains in detail how the proposed approach can help the Seeker. In my experience, it's often those well explained proposals which also emanate the Solver's passion for the presented solution which are the ones which will be successful eventually. 

More studies like the one cited above are underway and perhaps some of you who are reading this have been contacted in the past for your input. I want to thank those who have shared their experience. We are grateful for the input and will take the steps necessary to improve our platform and processes to the benefit of all stakeholders involved.


Topics: Challenges

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