Fatbergs, Fuel Cylinders and Fusion Energy: How Crowdsourcing is Changing Innovation in Engineering


Although InnoCentive has a history of solving problems in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries, as shown by Seekers such as AstraZeneca, Cleveland Clinic or GlaxoSmithKline to name a few, our methodology is highly adaptable and we are by no means restricted to this sector, as highlighted in the recent piece on the diverse uses of crowdsourcing competitions. Engineering in particular is a discipline where InnoCentive has run a number of intriguing Challenges through our innovation platform, whether that be civil, mechanical or electrical and here we highlight a few examples.

In 2015, a 10-tonne congealed lump of food and other household waste – known as a ‘fatberg’ -was found in the sewers of London, causing an estimated £400,000 ($580,000) worth of damage. This was an extreme example but even much smaller scale blockages can have serious consequences, such as severe flooding and polluting waterways. This is why UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) decided to run a Challenge to find solutions that could monitor complex sewer networks and detect the formation of such blockages at early stages. The Challenge was successful and UKWIR awarded $10,000 to the top solution and $2,500 to the runner-up.

Another Engineering Challenge run by a UK-based Seeker (Ideas to Impact, a UK Department for International Development (DfID) programme) was the Recycling Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) Cylinders Across Sub-Saharan Africa Challenge. LPG is a clean-burning, portable and efficient fuel that is increasingly used in many developing countries but a large number of aging cylinders constitutes a worrying safety hazard due to lack of maintenance, putting populations in danger and ultimately hindering the growth of a successful LPG market. Hence, Ideas to Impact was looking for alternative uses for substandard cylinders in sub-Saharan Africa, so that they could be recycled and removed from the LPG distribution channels. The winning solution –the Skoon Stove – is highly sustainable as it involves the development of stoves using local material and the recycling of waste. One of the strengths of the solution is that cookstoves already have an existing market, and can easily create employment generation. Other winning ideas included converting LPG cylinders into water filtration systems, and construction materials such as steel rebar. You can read more about the winning solutions here.

Even the world of fusion energy is embracing crowdsourcing. General Fusion is the market leader in Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF), which uses shock waves to compress hydrogen plasma to fusion temperatures and pressures. They were seeking methods to seal a metal cylinder and the surface of the cylindrical hole into which it fits such that molten lead on one end of the cylinder is isolated from a vacuum on the opposite end, without being compromised by the repetitive impacts and high temperatures of the cylinder. Kirby Meacham, thanks to his experience as an MIT-trained mechanical engineer and an inventor listed on 35 US-issued patents, won the $20,000 prize with his “Metallic Pressure-Balanced Anvil Seal” design. Speaking about his win for a General Fusion press release, Meacham said: “I was able to draw from my knowledge of high temperature seal technology gained by recent work on reduced friction piston rings for internal combustion engines.”

Accessing these types of fresh perspectives can be critical for driving innovation and there are pressing engineering problems for which crowdsourcing can provide valuable solutions. Our crowd is as diverse as our Challenges and whether you’re a freelance aerospace engineer, a team of car mechanics or a Seeker looking for a breakthrough design solution, InnoCentive can be the connector you’re looking for.

The Power of Showcase Challenges

The Power of Showcase Challenges – Lion’s Den and Beyond

The Power of Showcase ChallengesAs comes spring, so comes a successful conclusion to another year of Lion’s Den Challenge – the flagship start-up competition for staff and students at King’s College London, which has been run in partnership with InnoCentive over the past five years. Following a six-month programme of workshops, networking events and mentorship opportunities to help students validate and develop their business ideas, winners were announced at the awards ceremony in March, which was held in the grand setting of the House of Lords in London, UK.

This type of Challenge is less about finding point solutions to innovation problems. Instead it is about sourcing and showcasing great ideas and organizations – bringing them to you rather than the other way around.

InnoCentive has a long history of running these “Showcase Challenges”. The Global Security Challenge, an annual Showcase Challenge with a different theme each year, was run over six year period by a predecessor of InnoCentive. Sponsored by US government departments and large international corporations, these groups were more accustomed to dealing with large businesses as tech providers. However the Global Security Challenge gave them an opportunity to connect with leading startups and SMEs from around the world: instead of the sponsors needing to take on extensive and expensive tech scouting programmes, a Showcase Challenge allowed the talent to come to them, and then through the competition structure, drive ever-increasing attainment levels. More recent examples InnoCentive have run include the UK Trade & Investment Sirius Programme, MasterCard Foundation “Clients at the Centre” Prize & Lumina Foundation’s Social Innovation Prize for Postsecondary Learning.

Showcase Challenges have diversified and developed over the years, but the central tenant remains the same – using crowdsourcing competitions to attract start-ups, SMEs or other NGOs to you, rather than having to find them yourself. However, by tailoring InnoCentive’s Challenge Driven Methodology, Showcase Challenges move beyond just an open call for business proposals. The use of robust application requirements, judging criteria and evaluation procedures gives a structure that allows for a more transparent, fair and objective competition. Showcase Challenges are not grant applications or open calls for business plans, but instead use the crowdsourcing principles that work so successfully in expediting technical innovations, to instead drive higher engagement, attainment and relevancy in business competitions.

The other key aspect of Showcase Challenges that gives real benefit to clients, is the publicity that comes from not only running the Challenge, but then also having associated marketing activities and culminating in a live pitching event. Awareness is firstly raised by highlighting the issue that the Challenge is tackling – whether that be student entrepreneurs or businesses providing micro-finance in the developing world. Once traction is gained, the contest can then be leveraged to attract other industry leaders, government representatives, media and others. These actions all help raise the profile of the competition, the issue, the applicants, and the sponsor. Over the six years that the Global Security Challenge ran, it became internationally recognised as an industry-leading event and programme – using high-profile Challenges can be an innovative way to position a company as a pioneer within a sector.

For those organisations that wish to move beyond purely technical solutions and instead find innovative ways to connect with start-ups, SMEs and businesses that otherwise may have never have come onto their radar, Showcase Challenges are one way this can be achieved to great effect. If you’d like to find out more about running your own Showcase Challenge, please feel free to get in contact here: You can read more about Lion’s Den Challenge and this year’s winners here.

Social Ventures’ Role in Reaching Goal 2025: Lumina Foundation’s Social Innovation Prize for Postsecondary Learning

Challenges are a way for companies and individuals to submit their ideas regarding solutions to issues that organizations are working to solve. Some of the country’s most innovative organizations use crowdsource innovation challenges to connect with the world’s most talented thinkers who then compete to provide solutions in return for a monetary prize and the networking opportunities that being announced as a winner creates.  This, in turn, helps Lumina in our work. We have only 9 years to reach Goal 2025; the aim of increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60% by 2025.


Lumina Foundation’s Social Innovation Prize for Postsecondary Learning seeks to highlight social ventures that are either already impacting postsecondary education in the US, or believe they could apply their model to increase attainment in the higher education sector. The organizations we’re interested in may be of any type, as long as they can show how their practices can be used to scale and sustain efforts to help advance Goal 2025.


Beyond the $50,000 award, the Lumina’s Social Innovation Prize for Postsecondary Learning offers a unique opportunity for visibility and networking with industry leaders at the ASU GSV Summit, a must-attend annual conference that brings together thought leaders who want to multiply the power of a great idea. Each finalist will pitch to a panel of industry experts that will include myself, Anne Dwane (GSV Ventures), Dan Osusky (B Lab), and Nasir Qadree (Village Capital). At the end of the ASU GSV session part of the prize will be awarded by the panel, the rest according to a live online crowd vote that will run during the session.  In addition, finalists will have the opportunity to plug into the many successful and long-lasting partnerships within the nonprofit and investment sectors that Lumina Foundation has built. It is Lumina’s hope that this Social Innovation Prize can be used as a potential first step in developing similar relationships with leading social ventures.


The deadline for submitting your social innovation concept is March 20th, 2016.


Please take a moment to look through the Challenge and consider if any of your ideas might be viable for submission. In addition, please pass on news of the Challenge launch to your networks. Help us find folks working hard to find solutions that align with Lumina’s goal to build an equitable, accessible, responsive and accountable higher education system.
Thanks and see you in San Diego!

Kiko Suarez

Vice President of Communications & Innovation

Lumina Foundation

Using 3D printers for innovation problem solving in the Middle East refugee crisis

Using 3D printers for innovation problem solving in the Middle East refugee crisis

Using 3D printers for innovation problem solving in the Middle East refugee crisisOne of the great aspects of 3D printing is how it has democratized manufacturing. Anyone with access to a 3D printer, raw materials like polymers, and a little imagination, can make almost anything.

It was with that fact in mind that Dave Levin and Loay Malameh have set up a maker space called FabLab in Amman, Jordan, according to Popular Science. The facility comes equipped with a number of tools, including a dozen 3D printers, to assist locals and refugees displaced by the Syrian Civil War to solve problems and better their lives. The maker space is supported by the Jordanian government as well as a number of private benefactors ranging from a particle physicist at CERN to the King of Jordan.

One example of how the 3D printers at FabLab work is in the modification of parts found in Syria to make firefighting equipment. A liquid petroleum gas tank was modified to hold water and was attached to a garden hose. The last part was a nozzle that was 3D printed at FabLab.

The facility is also working of 3D printing prosthetic limbs for refugees who have been injured in the fighting. Another project involved 3D printing a replication of unexploded ordinance that could then be used to teach refugees how to recognize and disarm the real thing.

Refugee Open Ware (ROW), the group that created FabLab, would like to expand the concept for innovation problem solving to other unsettled parts of the world, including Europe, which is playing reluctant host to over a million Middle Eastern and North African refugees.

An innovative product that earthquake proofs buildings using ancient Japanese building techniques

An innovative product that earthquake proofs buildings using ancient Japanese building techniques

An innovative product that earthquake proofs buildings using ancient Japanese building techniquesOne of the more vexing problems in modern construction is how to make buildings more earthquake proof. Since more construction is taking place around the Pacific Rim, where earthquakes tend to take place, finding answers has become vital.

As it turns out, one solution can be found in pre-modern Japanese building, according to Gizmodo. It seems that those picturesque, tall pagodas that dot the landscape in Japan have a central wooden pillar that dampens the shaking effects of earthquakes, in which floors move from side to side and then transmit that energy into the ground.

Taking that idea into the 21st century, builders have developed an innovative product product called Cross-Laminated Timber, or CLT. CLT is a type of timber that sandwiches layers of wood that move in opposite directions. This creates a type of timber that is much stronger than the sums of its parts.

The initial idea of using CLT to construct buildings that are seven to 15 stories tall is that it is more environmentally friendly to produce than steel. However, builders began to realize that using CLT made buildings more resistant to earthquakes, as well. They are experimenting with using CLT reinforced with steel, combined with conventional lumber, to construct wooden buildings that resist the shaking motion inflicted by earthquakes and dissipate the energy much like the wooden pillars in the Japanese pagodas.

Researchers think that potential exists for using CLT to build high-rise buildings. If that happens, it will represent a modern take on the technology used by Japanese artisans centuries ago.

An innovation in clearing space junk developed in China

An innovation in clearing space junk developed in China

An innovation in clearing space junk developed in ChinaThe problem of space junk has proven increasingly vexing to both national space agencies, such as NASA, and commercial space companies. Millions of pieces of debris, ranging from nuts and bolts to spent satellites, orbit the Earth at thousands of miles an hour, providing a navigational hazard to both crewed spacecraft and active satellites. Periodically the International Space Station is obliged to maneuver to avoid a collision with a piece of space junk that might otherwise severely damage it.

According to MIT Technology Review, a group of engineers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China have proposed an innovative solution to the problem. The idea is to launch a satellite with a source of power, solar or nuclear and have it swallow space junk, grind it up into powder, superheat it into plasma, and use the plasma to maneuver about. In theory, such a vehicle could move about in orbit around the Earth indefinitely, swallowing up debris and using it as fuel.

To be sure, the debris-eating spacecraft would only work with space junk less than 10 centimeters in diameter. Larger pieces of space junk would be heated by a laser to cause them to crash into the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. Also, some have expressed concern about using nuclear power in low Earth orbit.

Still, the Chinese engineers may be onto something. Previous ideas of dealing with space junk were limited by the problem of fuel. Once the fuel runs out for a space junk collection vehicle, it becomes space junk itself. But the use of space junk as fuel seems to be an elegant solution to that problem.

A cheap, simple, and cleaner desalination innovation

A cheap, simple, and cleaner desalination innovation

A cheap, simple, and cleaner desalination innovationThe major problem with desalination is that the process involves a great deal of energy and a large infrastructure using reverse osmosis. Desalination also deposits concentrated salt water and other pollutants back into the ocean, with all the adverse environmental impact that implies.

According to Gizmag, some researchers at the University of Arizona have developed an innovative method of desalination that is cheaper, simpler, and likely cleaner than the standard method. The new process is called pervaporation. The first step passes the water through a membrane to filter out most of the larger solids. The second step evaporates the water and then collects it as it condenses.

The real breakthrough involves how the membrane is made. The University of Arizona researchers embeds salt-attracting material with cellulose acetate powder made from cheap wood pulp. This material is far less expensive than the sorts of membranes in use currently.

The process is said to not only produce clean drinking water from even the most polluted sea water, but it is also cheap and scalable for any situation. The evaporation step can even use fire as a heating element.

One of the most pressing problems the world faces is the lack of clean drinking water, especially in the developing world. Even in a place like California, drought-prone as it tends to be, access to drinking water can be a problem. As the Earth’s population continues to grow, the problem is only going to get worse.

Thirsty populations are increasingly turning to the oceans for access to water. The cheaper that desalination can be made, the more access to water humans will have.

Top Idea Generation Ideas: Three Tips

Top Idea Generation Ideas: Three Tips

Top Idea Generation Ideas: Three Tips

Idea generation is at the core of your company’s success, so you need to develop strategies for making it happen.

Your idea generation is at the core of your company’s success and your individual success. Here are three ideas that you may not have thought would help generate ideas, but Fortune 500 companies regularly use these techniques.

Take Rest Consistently.

Top companies from Google to Facebook give their employees the ability to stretch at their desk at least once every 20 minutes. These companies are consistently among the most productive companies in the world year after year.

The body is not made to provide stable productivity for eight hours in a row. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you have to perform this way. Move with the natural flow of your body and rest when you need to rest!

Crowdsource Your Idea Generation.

One of the cheapest ways to get your next million dollar idea is to let others build on it through the proper crowdsourcing platform. Create a challenge for an up-and-comer to cut his teeth on. Make sure the best ideas receive recognition and status, either through a prize or through public acknowledgment. The volume of ideas that you will receive may surprise you.

Use the Minimum Value Proposition.

Many people fear moving ideas forward because of the R&D time it takes to test an idea. Lean start-up philosophy tells us to use the minimum value proposition to test ideas. In short, your beta test is the bare minimum that you can present in a functional way to an audience. Your audience then gives you the critiques so that you can move forward with more confidence.

Now a wearable innovation collects data on football player performance in real time

Now a wearable innovation collects data on football player performance in real time

Now a wearable innovation collects data on football player performance in real time

The Internet of Things has made its way into professional athletics with a system that picks up and records real-time data about gameplay in football from players’ shoulder pads.

Implantable and wearable devices that send information to the Internet, known collectively as the Internet of Things, is starting to affect everything from home appliances to healthcare. According to ZME Science, the technology is starting to penetrate professional athletics.

The National Football League has taken the initiative of providing every player with tags, essentially RFID devices, that will be planted in each shoulder pad. Stadiums are being equipped with receivers that will pick up data from the tags, including field position, speed, distance traveled and acceleration. The data will be generated and distributed in real time.

One can imagine the applications for this innovation. Every kind of statistic imaginable for each individual player will be available instantly to sportscasters and spectators, both at the stadium and at home, to discuss and argue about.

More importantly, the data will be available to coaches and the players themselves. The data can be used to help improve the performance of the players and to catch problem areas in advance.

One can imagine the technology going further, for instance, sensor devices being implanted in the ball. Then the ball’s velocity and flight path would be ascertained in real time. The degree of inflation could also be determined, preventing the reoccurrence of the recent deflation scandal.

One should also look for the technology to spread to other sports that involve people running fast after balls, such as baseball and basketball. The gathering of information and the use of it to improve performance would take a giant leap in sports as a result.

Enel Green Power: Let's Innovate. The Challenge Begins.

Five Challenges to drive innovations in Renewable Energy


As a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest energy providers, Enel Green Power concentrates all their efforts on the production of renewable energy through a variety of sources. With a presence in four continents and 735 active power plants globally, it is truly a transnational corporation leading the way in the production of geothermal energy, hydropower, solar energy, biomass, and wind power.

As part of their continual strive to improve renewable energy production and further diversify the energy mix, they have launched five Challenges through their own online platform. These Challenges are looking for early-stage innovative technological solutions and proposals that centre around five key issues that are highlighted below.

  1. Use of drones / satellites in renewable plants

Enel Green Power is looking for effective and concrete proposals of drones and satellites use for power plants during the engineering and construction phase, and operation and maintenance activities. The challenge is to propose an effective way to use drones in renewable power plant management to improve safety, decrease maintenance costs, number of faults etc.

  1. Automatic Assembly of photovoltaic plants

Enel Green Power is looking for automatic assembly systems but it seems that there are very few solutions available on the market, proposed by literature, applied by other electrical utilities worldwide, or in early stages of development. The challenge is to design a system able to assemble solar power plants automatically.

  1. Photovoltaic Panels Cleaning

Periodical cleaning of solar panels is very important in order to produce and deliver the maximum amount of energy to the grid. Enel Green Power is looking for some solutions which include: Water free solutions (robots installed at string level), and Cleaning with tracks that use water and brushes (necessary water and vehicles fuel consumption). The challenge is to find an effective and inexpensive solution to clean solar modules.

  1. Wind Turbines generators blades anti-icing and de-icing systems

Wind turbine performance can be significantly reduced when the surface integrity of the turbine blades is compromised. The challenge is to find out an effective and inexpensive way to avoid ice formation that can be feasibly applied on new blades or on blades already installed.

  1. New geophysical prospecting techniques

In order to find out the right places of where to drill new wells, Enel Green Power performs geophysical surveys, with the aim to obtain, through the surface detection of some physical parameters of deep geological formations, indirect information useful for the reconstruction of the geothermal model. In this Challenge, Enel Green Power is looking for new geophysical prospecting techniques.