Baking Diversity into Your Solutions

Innovation Program Manager Kevin Mobbs, shares some insights into the RTP Challenges.

2 challengesPlug and play solutions to long-standing, or technically demanding, problems are few and far between. Almost all novel technologies require considerable development before they are ready for roll out. This is the reality of product & process development – it is very hard work!

As Thomas Edison said “Opportunities are missed by many because they wear overalls and look like work!” Using a Challenge Driven Innovation approach to source solutions, it is key to focus in on the aspects of the problem most amenable to the community of Solvers your channel addresses. There is a great deal we can do to properly position Challenge statements in order to stimulate Solver engagement and perhaps the most influential factor driving this is the deliverable required from the Solver.

Many Reduction to Practice (RTP) Challenges require Solvers to provide solutions, or materials, that have been validated. While there are many advantages to the Seeker organization of having a ‘menu’ of solutions available to be delivered and tested by their in-house experts, the Solver perspective is somewhat different. Typically, fewer Solvers engage in RTP Challenges than in Theoretical Challenges and so some diversity is lost from the ‘menu’ of potential solutions. Higher awards for RTP Challenges are intended to engage Solvers and compensate their investment of time and materials, but this assumes that most Solvers with the insight and intellectual power to innovate a solution also have access to the resources required to produce e.g. a novel nanostructure, or a high-flow particle filter.

While there are many high impact examples of successful RTP Challenges, it is always worth considering the community of Solvers who would have access to the resources required to engage in your Challenge. For instance, if your knotty problem has been addressed by many talented protein biochemists & the community of Solvers with the resources to provide your desired deliverable are also protein biochemists, then the likelihood of success is likely suboptimal. So, what to do?

The answer is often to ask “What do I really need in order to address this problem & how will I best measure the suitability of a solution?”

Having worked in the biotech industry for many years, I understand the pain of bringing new technologies and materials in-house and trying to replicate the validation data that helped initiate the collaboration. On many occasions the answer involved focusing on the core competencies of both parties & using resources accordingly.

Many large organizations now have the ability to realize solutions in a very rapid manner. In making RTP Challenges more accessible, the difference between requesting a prototype & requesting a technical drawing can make a huge difference to Solver engagement. For Seekers who have access to resources to quickly realize a solution and test it in house, the difference can often be small. So, if you can live with a well crafted solution that describes in detail how the solution can be made, you are likely to reap the benefits of more diverse and creative solutions from a larger number of Solvers. A possible answer, then, is an RTP Challenge that asks only for a ‘theoretical’ solution from Solvers, but allows Seekers to create & validate those solutions in-house before making an award.

A good current example is the Challenge from the Citrus Research & Development Foundation (CRDF) requesting RNAi with activity against the Asian Citrus Psyllid – an imported insect pest that has spread citrus greening disease to more than 70% of Florida’s citrus trees and threatens the state’s $7bn citrus industry. The Seeker requests RNA molecule sequences that can be used to interfere with the psyllid’s biological machinery – not the RNA itself, just the sequence of letters that will let the Seeker make these molecules. Measuring the likely success of the suggested sequence by the Solvers paper supporting data and their own bioinformatic approaches means that CRDF have opened the Challenge to almost any molecular biologist who can use genome databases. At the same time, they have retained the right to test how well the RNA molecules will work on the insect pest before making an award.

The Technology Scout’s mantra of ‘It’s either damned early or damned expensive” is often true & if diversity and novelty are important, targeting the early end of the spectrum is rarely the wrong strategy. You may have to tolerate the ‘overalls’ and the hard work, but the opportunity could then be yours!

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