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

John Wilczynski

Seeker Spotlight: America Makes

John Wilczynski

John Wilczynski, Deputy Director of Technology Development at America Makes

America Makes is the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute. As the national accelerator for additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing (3DP), America Makes is the nation’s leading and collaborative partner in AM and 3DP technology research, discovery, creation, and innovation. The Institute recently announced its exciting new Challenge, looking for organizations able to produce smart structures – parts with integrated devices, such as sensors – through additive manufacturing technology. As an award, the Institute is offering Silver-level Membership to America Makes for a year, worth $15,000. We recently spoke with John Wilczynski, Deputy Director of Technology Development at America Makes to find out more about the Challenge and the Institute’s motivations for running it.

Hello John – thank you for joining us today. To start could you give us a bit of background information on America Makes, its aims and mission, and how this Challenge complements it?

America Makes was established in 2012 as a public-private partnership with member organizations from industry, academia, government, non-government agencies, and workforce and economic development resources. The strength of the Institute starts with our members. Together with our members, we are working to innovate and accelerate 3DP to increase our nation’s global manufacturing competitiveness. We feel this Smart Structures Challenge has the potential to impact two of our important initiatives:

  • Facilitating the development, evaluation, and deployment of efficient and flexible additive manufacturing technologies.
  • Linking and integrating companies with existing public, private, or not-for-profit industrial and economic development resources, and business incubators, with an emphasis on assisting small- and medium-sized enterprises and early-stage companies (start-ups).

What do you think is the importance of smart structures production for the advancement of additive technology?

Additive manufacturing is a hot topic right now; with applications ranging from aerospace to biomedical, and anything in between. A topic of increasing interest is the ability to include specific functionalities into a manufactured part. The term “functionalities” could be anything, from having a chip invaded on the surface, maybe an antenna, or having the structure react a certain way based on a given external signal. Parts that have these added utilities are what we are calling “Start Structures” and they have a wide range of applications inside and outside of additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing also allows for interesting new ways to produce these components.

Why are you looking towards InnoCentive and crowdsourcing to try and address this need?

At the Institute, we are doing great work, but we realize that there is a tremendous amount of research and development activity in the 3DP community that is not currently represented at America Makes. We are looking to crowdsourcing and InnoCentive to try and connect with some of this great work. Connecting with the “crowd” will dramatically improve our ability to accelerate 3DP research and the supply chain associated with smart structures and devices.


You’re offering a Silver-level Membership (or a $15k credit, if applicable) in America Makes as an award for the Challenge. What are some of the benefits of being part of an organization like America Makes?

As an America Makes member, you will experience a number of member benefits, including access to valuable intellectual property from our research portfolio, which is currently valued in excess of $85 million, as well as technical presentations, project calls, our Innovation Factory, and much more.


Thanks for your time John. Do you have any last advice or guidance for people looking to enter the Challenge?

Don’t constrain your thinking and good luck!

Conquer Paralysis Now Banner with SAC member Shawn Hochman Photo

Conquer Paralysis Now: Seeker Spotlight – Shawn Hochman

Conquer Paralysis Now Banner with SAC member Shawn Hochman Photo

Following the launch of the second round of the CPN Challenge, we interviewed Prof. Shawn Hochman from Emory University, who is a member of the CPN Science Advisory Council. He shared his thoughts about our 10 year Challenge Program and also gave some advice for solvers.

Conquer Paralysis Now: Interview with SAC member Shawn Hochman

  1. Hello Shawn – thanks for joining us today. Can you start by telling us about your background and what attracted you to spinal cord injury (SCI) research?

My PhD research examined the effects of spinal cord injury on stretch reflexes, so I always had this area in mind. Nonetheless, my research has been more generally devoted to understanding neuromodulation-based spinal circuit modifiability, focusing on biogenic amine modulators serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine. These transmitters have been linked to activation of the spinal cord circuitry generating locomotion, control of autonomic function, as well as the potent control of spinal cord sensory input including of pain systems. Since SCI complexly modifies sensory, motor, and autonomic function, my research interests are a natural fit for a multi-system perspective on behavioral plasticity after SCI.

  1. What research are you currently working on?

We recently branched into more unexplored territories of investigation with a much stronger focus on SCI research.

We are examining the properties of paravertebral sympathetic chain ganglianeurons.  They represent the final drive and control vascular function in the trunk and upper extremities. Given their strategic nodal site, any plasticity is likely to be of high significance, yet there are still no accurate recordings of their integrative properties or recruitment principles. That cardiovascular disease is the most common cause of death after SCI compels a better understanding of plasticity in this essential neural population.

Secondly, with the proposition that a near-continuous record of an animal’s physio-behavioral self may offer insight to the origins of inter-animal variability, we have begun to develop approaches for high throughput continuous characterization of rodent physio-behavioral variables in their home-cages using electric field sensors. Capturing the temporal dynamics of SCI pathophysiology may help uncover phenotypic predictors of disease emergence for subsequent smart feedback-based prevention.

Third, we are testing whether pleasurable touch become painful after SCI. Skin C-fiber low-threshold mechanoreceptors (C-LTMRs) respond instead to innocuous tactile stimuli and are uniquely tuned to transmit information about pleasant affiliative touch. We hypothesize that SCI transforms these C-LTMRs into allodynia-encoding nociceptors in body regions associated with the segmental site of injury. We developed an ex-vivo skin-nerve preparation to characterize the properties of C-LTMRs by their selective optogenetic activation, and in response to brush stimuli.

  1. What is different about the CPN Challenge compared to more traditional sources of funding?

Scientific research is dominated by the application of established research methods to further probe our fundamental understanding of mechanisms in established research disciplines. Funding agencies cater to this dominant approach, and scientific reviewers on committees judge applications as meritorious based on this highly ingrained mindset. Although non-traditional high risk projects have the capacity to catalyze innovation and are potentially transformative, the lack of success via traditional funding opportunities reduces people’s incentive to think this way. The academic culture of publish or perish is a further disincentive to undertake risky research. The CPN challenge represents an important launchpad for this endeavor. While the Out-of-the Box award category says it all, clearly both the Collaboration and Cross-over awards are designed to ignite discovery by encouraging researchers in other disciplines to interact with SCI researchers and pollinate expertise to the field of spinal cord injury.

  1. The Trial & Error Prize is encouraging researchers to share data from lessons learned in their experiments. Why is this important?

The scientific enterprise is heavily biased to report on successes, not failures, so there many studies with negative results to important questions that never see the light of day. Worse, it may very well be that many failed clinical trials were in part based on the bias of reporting only positive findings.  By encouraging researchers to share data from lessons learned, the Trial & Error Prize is targeting another important issue, to provide important insights on experimental approaches and results that help limit wasteful struggle or duplication in other labs.

  1. Any final words of advice or guidance for people looking to enter the Challenge?

This is a tough question. Obviously reading the expectations of the award categories should in itself tell you whether a category strikes a chord of excitement in you. Ideas based on cross-fertilization with immunologists, engineers, and experts very loosely associated with your field may prime an idea in you. The Challenge is looking for creativity and risk-taking, so perhaps dial down the focus knob a little, overwhelm yourself with an intense period of reading disparate information sprinkled with highlights on new technologies, and then let your unconscious do the work. Who knows – coffee is one of my dearest friends!

Skoll Global Threat Funds

Seeker Spotlight: Skoll Global Threats Fund

Skoll Global Threats FundToday we’re speaking with the Skoll Global Threats Fund, who have just launched their latest challenge on water/climatic events.

Thanks for joining us today. To start, could you tell us a bit about Skoll Global Threats Fund’s mission and key activities?

 The Skoll Global Threats Fund is a private foundation based in California and we are committed to safeguarding humanity against global threats. In particular, we focus on a number of global threats that this challenge touches on: water, climate, and pandemics. We believe that the dramatic advancement in data and technology in the past decade, as well as our ability to connect with different people from different sectors, has the potential to give us some exciting solutions to tackle these very big threats that we face.

Why is this an important public good problem?

 We live in an increasingly interconnected and complex world. While the rapid exchange of goods, information, and ideas has brought opportunities to many, the increased interconnectivity has also increased our vulnerability to systemic risks.  In the last 10 years, we have seen an increasing number of water and climate shocks, such as extreme local floods and droughts that have triggered global crises and led to disease outbreaks, social unrest, migration, political instability. For example, droughts in China and the Middle East and a heat wave in Russia all contributed to high food prices that contributed to the start of the Arab Spring. We need a better way to monitor and alert if, where, and when these types of events may happen in the future.

Briefly, what are you looking for with the challenge?

We are really looking for new ideas and new approaches that can identify early indications that a water or climatic event in one location, such as floods or droughts, can trigger direct and indirect impacts elsewhere in the world. It is exciting to sometimes hear that there is so much data in the world, but what we are looking for is how to harness that data to solve big global threats.

What could strong submissions lead to?

We believe that the strong submissions can be the beginning of creating a near-real time monitoring system to predict these types of globally networked risks. As sectors tend to be siloed, and data disparate, we hope that  the submissions can lead to creative ways of fusing and analyzing data across disciplines, for a more thoughtful and informative analysis.

Any final words of advice or guidance for people looking to enter the Challenge?

We are really excited to see what the solvers come up with! We are looking for new, unusual, and diverse ideas. We are really hoping to see that a new network of innovators on water and climate shocks emerges out of this competition.

Pete Martin, President and CEO at Votem

Seeker Spotlight – Votem: Join the Mobile Voting Revolution

Pete Martin, President and CEO at Votem

Votem is a revolutionary mobile voting platform designed to securely cast votes in elections around the world. They have launched a $230,000 Challenge in partnership with InnoCentive to find solutions that can overcome the main obstacles to mobile voting; security, identification and authentication, and accuracy and verifiability. For further details, please go to

We recently spoke with Pete Martin, President and CEO at Votem, to find out some more about the Challenge.


Could you start by telling us more about Votem and what the company stands for?

Voting in most places around the world and especially in the U.S. is pretty much the same process as it’s been for decades. In some places like my home state of Ohio, we actually went back in time to paper ballots. In an age where mobile technology has transformed how we work and live, I find this unacceptable. Voter turnout in the last general election was the lowest in 72 years.  Part of the reason for this is that voting is incredibly inconvenient so when you throw general apathy in politicians and the political process on top of this, people simply aren’t going to do it.

I founded Votem because I believe that people truly do care about what happens in their government and do want to make a difference, but the process makes it more difficult to do so.  If we can make it easier, safer and more secure for citizens around the world, I am confident that more people will step-up and participate by casting their vote more often.


How does this Challenge align with the company objectives and what would you like to see from the solutions?

When we speak with anyone about what we are doing with mobile voting, we consistently get 2 responses.  The first response is “Great idea! I would absolutely vote more often if I could do it on my phone.”  The second response is almost always, “But what about security.  I’d have to be confident that my vote would never be hacked.”

That’s what this Challenge is all about. We want to ensure that we are building a solution from the ground-up with the best security in the world at its core so that politicians can’t simply wave off this option due to “security concerns.”

Once we take the technological concerns off the table, then we can have a substantive conversation about why this is good for all democratic nations, regardless of ideology or political affiliation.


What was your motivation for crowdsourcing this Challenge instead of using more traditional methods?

There are very good companies that have done an admiral job of pushing online voting through the Internet with limited success so we know there are the kernel of solutions out there.  But like most markets, people that work in an industry tend to go after solutions the same way and consequently only get marginal improvements.   We think that by opening up this challenge to the crowd, that novel solutions that have never been explored or applied to the voting system market will drive breakthrough solutions.  It might have been easier for us to hire some really smart developers / mobile security firms, but history tell us that the toughest challenges are generally solved more effectively by the crowd – that’s certainly what we are hoping for here.


What are the key attributes that you’d like to see (or not see) in a winning solution?

Although there are many characteristics of a world-class mobile voting solution, they all start with 3 foundational elements.  Without these, the rest of the functions don’t matter.   The first is mass proof security.  We are not naïve and know that there is no true “hack-proof” system but we also know that through pre-emptive and preventative measures, constant-monitoring and the highest-level security built-in from the beginning, that we can create a system that effectively can’t be hacked on a mass-scale which by itself deters hacking.

The second and third pieces of the challenge involve identification / authentication through the process from voting through casting and then end-to-end verifiability for the both and the elections bodies and their auditors to give everyone the confidence that a vote cast is indeed a vote counted.

If solvers can provide us with a rich-level of detail on how they can solve these challenges in elegant and innovative ways, then we are glad to award them the prize money and discuss how we might work with them on an ongoing basis.


Thanks for your time Pete – do you have any final guidance or advice for our Solvers as they tackle this Challenge?

My final piece of advice is that I implore anyone who thinks they can tackle these challenges in ways not seen before to participate because we truly think this can change democratic nations as we know it by literally putting the power of the people back in their hands.   We’ve very recently seen what social and mobile can do to spark revolutions and topple governments at witness in the Middle East; imagine what peaceful power on a consistent basis can do to help keep power in check and the voice of people ever-present with our governmental leaders.  Please join our mobile voting revolution!

Cyndi Wright, SUDEP Institute Director

The SUDEP Institute Challenge: Seeker Spotlight

Cyndi Wright, SUDEP Institute Director

Cyndi Wright, SUDEP Institute Director

The Epilepsy Foundation is offering US$15,000 to ideas for a viral and creative advocacy campaign that helps its mission of educating the public, providing better healthcare to people with epilepsy and seizures, and preventing sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP). We caught up with Cyndi Wright, SUDEP Institute director, to find out some more about the work of the Epilepsy Foundation and what exactly it wants to achieve with this Prize.


  1. Hello Cyndi, thanks for talking to us. For those not familiar with the Epilepsy Foundation and the SUDEP Institute can you tell us a bit about your work?

The Epilepsy Foundation, a national non-profit with nearly 50 affiliated organizations throughout the United States, is an unwavering ally for individuals and families impacted by epilepsy and seizures. The mission of the Epilepsy Foundation is to stop seizures and SUDEP, find a cure, and overcome the challenges created by epilepsy through efforts including education, advocacy, and research to accelerate ideas into therapies. The Foundation works to ensure that people with seizures have the opportunity to live their lives to their fullest potential. 

To address SUDEP, or sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, the Epilepsy Foundation launched the SUDEP Institute to carry out SUDEP education and awareness programs for people affected by epilepsy and medical professionals; drive and support research into the causes of and ways to prevent SUDEP; and offer a support network providing counselling, community, and resources for individuals and families affected by SUDEP. The SUDEP Institute works together with many epilepsy organizations and experts to find the answers to SUDEP.


  1. Why is it so important to educate the public in general about epilepsy and seizures? How has the general lack of awareness been affecting people living with the disease?

A widespread lack of awareness and ongoing fear and discrimination lead too many individuals to hide their epilepsy. As a result, the public is not aware that 1 in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some point in their lifetime. Among those living with epilepsy, nearly one-third is not able to control their seizures with existing therapies. Each year, more than 1 out of 1,000 people with epilepsy die from SUDEP.

If people with epilepsy and their families are aware of SUDEP and in control of that information, they can take precautions to decrease their risk. That’s why we are hosting our first challenge around an awareness effort — to find an innovative way to reach all people with epilepsy, families, health care professionals, and the general public, reduce fear and misunderstanding, and provide the tools people with epilepsy need to seek the best available treatments in order to change and save lives.


  1. Can you tell us a bit more about sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), as it seems to be a fairly unknown?

SUDEP is the leading cause of epilepsy-related death. For people with poorly controlled seizures, especially convulsive seizures, the risk of dying from SUDEP is much higher: 1 out of 150 each year. No one yet knows the cause of SUDEP. We do know that SUDEP happens most often at night. SUDEP may happen when there are problems with breathing, heartbeat, and brain function after a seizure. While we don’t know the cause of SUDEP, we do know that having as few seizures as possible can decrease the risk.


  1. In terms of your advocacy efforts, what are the greatest barriers that you’ve found?

Many people just aren’t aware of the serious risks associated with epilepsy and many doctors do not feel comfortable talking about those risks. As a result, many people with epilepsy accept ongoing seizures instead of seeking out more effective treatments.

Another challenge is that since we do not know the cause of SUDEP or how to predict or prevent it, some doctors feel talking about SUDEP will only create anxiety for families without any benefit.  The SUDEP Institute believes that this is not true, as knowledge of SUDEP empowers people with epilepsy to do everything they can to reduce their risk.


  1. Why did you choose crowdsourcing as a means to tackle this problem?

The SUDEP Institute believes in the power of the crowd.  Not only do we believe that a prize challenge can attract a broad and diverse pool of “Solvers” from around the world that will offer new perspectives and fresh ideas, but also through the challenge itself, we are building awareness worldwide for SUDEP. We are excited to learn from what others have successfully implemented in different fields.


  1. What are some of the key attributes you would like to see in a winning solution?

The winning solution will bea creative and viral advocacy campaign that can reach people with epilepsy, families, the health care community, and the general public.  Through positive messaging the campaign will reduce fear and misunderstanding. It will drive behavior change so people seek and doctors provide the best available treatments.


  1. Can you describe the impact a successful solution would have?

A successful solution will drive people with epilepsy to reduce their risk for SUDEP by taking medication as prescribed, maintaining a good and regular sleep schedule, avoiding excess alcohol, and seeking optimal seizure control by challenging their medical team to explore new treatment options. If seizures are not controlled, they will pursue care with an epilepsy specialist.  People with epilepsy will not settle for a life with seizures because one seizure is too many.

Health care professionals will discuss the risk of SUDEP and how to reduce this risk, understand that seizure control means zero seizures, and continue to pursue new treatment options, including referring patients to an epilepsy specialist, until complete seizure control has been achieved.


  1. Any final words of advice or guidance for people wanting to enter the Challenge?

We are truly excited to launch these challenges and find a way to prevent SUDEP.  More people in the US die each year from SUDEP than SIDS or fires, yet everyone knows about and discusses the risk for SIDS and fire safety. We just want the same for epilepsy and SUDEP so families can protect themselves and prevent this tragic outcome. The Solvers of this challenge will be saving lives as well as improving the lives of all people with epilepsy.



The MasterCard Foundation

Seeker Spotlight: The MasterCard Foundation

The MasterCard FoundationThe MasterCard Foundation Clients at the Centre Prize is offering US$150,000 to a client-focused financial service provider that best responds to the financial services needs and aspirations of poor people living in developing countries. We caught up with Sumaiya Sajjad, Program Manager, Financial Inclusion, to find out some more about The MasterCard Foundation and what exactly it wants to achieve with this Prize.


  1. Could you provide us with some background information about The MasterCard Foundation and in particular its focus on financial inclusion?

Founded in 2006, The MasterCard Foundation works with visionary organizations to provide greater access to education, skills training, and financial services for people living in poverty, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa. As one of the largest private foundations, our work is guided by a mission to advance learning and promote financial inclusion to create an inclusive and equitable world. Since the inception of the Foundation, we have committed more than $450 million toward financial inclusion projects, about a third of total Foundation commitments over that time.

  1. What excites you most in the financial inclusion space at the moment, and what are the biggest obstacles the industry is facing?

There are a lot of exciting opportunities in the financial inclusion space, but in the context of this prize, I would like to mention the following.  The space today is open to a range of players and an even wider range of partnership possibilities.  For example, the incredible spread of mobile phones is leading to solutions that are not necessarily spearheaded by traditional players, but instead by technology companies together with financial service providers.  This implies opportunities not just to enhance current products and channels but also to seek alternative pathways to inclusion.

Having said that, one obstacle I see is that while a range of innovative solutions are being implemented in different parts of the world, we may not be fully aware of them.  This results in their inability to scale or receive the necessary attention, and our inability to learn from them. We hope that by hosting this Prize, as well as The MasterCard Foundation Symposium on Financial Inclusion, we will be able to highlight some of these innovations, offer them a platform to exchange and debate ideas with like-minded practitioners, and enable them grow further.

  1. Why did you choose crowdsourcing as a means to tackle financial inclusion issues?

While we are aware of many client-centric practices in financial services firms in different parts of the world, we are by no means aware of all of them. When we decided to recognize and reward the firm that best puts “clients at the centre”, we wanted to cast our nets wide. We want to be sure that we recognize the firm that has truly put this philosophy at the core of its decision-making, no matter what size it may be. If it is doing something truly innovative that is advancing financial inclusion for the benefit of poor people in developing countries, we want to hear about it.

  1. Why is the theme ‘clients at the centre’?

Because we believe that, in order to truly change the way financial services organizations think about and interact with poor people, the organizations need to put those clients (current, and future) at the heart and centre of their thinking and decision-making. This goes beyond asking clients what they would like as a product or service; it means adopting a permanent way of doing business where every employee asks her or himself each day: “what more can we do to enable our poorest clients to reach their goals and fulfil their ambitions?”

  1. What exactly is The MasterCard Foundation Symposium on Financial Inclusion and why did you decide to invite finalists to present at the 2015 Symposium?

The Symposium is an annual event where about 300 world leaders in financial inclusion come together to learn about latest trends, share experiences, and consider how to drive greater client-centricity among financial services organizations. Attendees come representing financial services providers, mobile network operators, government officials, non-governmental organizations working in this space, and academia. We believe that finalists in this Prize competition would benefit enormously from networking and meeting those kinds of people for a cross-fertilization of good ideas. We also believe it is important to “let the people choose”, hence the idea to “crowd-source” the selection of the first winner of The MasterCard Foundation Clients at the Centre Prize.

  1. Any final words of advice for an organization wanting to enter the Prize?

We’re looking for the organization that is the most client-centric in the world in terms of providing financial products and services that poor people in developing countries find attractive, appropriate, and sustainable. We’re not looking for ideas per se but rather practices where we can see what true client-centricity looks like and how it is being applied for the benefit of the economically disadvantaged.

UKWIR Seeker Spotlight: Steve Whipp

Seeker Spotlight: UKWIR – Steve Whipp

UKWIR Seeker Spotlight: Steve Whipp


The United Kingdom Water Industry Research (UKWIR) recently launched its first Challenge, Detecting the build-up of blockages in complex fluid networks. This $15,000 Ideation Challenge is seeking innovative solutions to stop blockages on the networks which can result in spillages from sewers that lead to troublesome property flooding and to contamination of waterways. We recently spoke with Steve Whipp, Project Manager at UKWIR, about the Challenge.

Hello Steve, thanks very much for speaking with us. For those not familiar with UKWIR, can you tell us a bit about your work?

UKWIR was set up by the UK water industry in 1993 to provide a framework for the procurement of a common research program for UK water operators on ‘one voice’ issues. UKWIR’s members comprise 21 water and sewerage undertakers in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

What are your key objectives for this Challenge? Can you tell us more about the problems you’re addressing and the goals you’ve set for this Competition?

Sewerage networks were built starting over 100 years ago and have served us well. In the UK there are over 500,000 kilometers of pipes. Periodically we experience blockages on the network which can be due to a number of reasons. For example silt or fat deposits can build up and these cause the pipes to become partially or totally blocked. So next time it rains we can see flooding because the system is blocked. What we want to do is develop a system that can detect when blockages are starting to build up and then we can send in crews to make sure they are kept clear.

What was your primary motivation for crowdsourcing this Challenge to InnoCentive’s Solvers (as opposed to using more “traditional” means to solicit ideas and solutions)?

The UKWIR program group considers this as a key strategic challenge that has to be addressed. We typically work with consultants, suppliers and universities to carry out work but we’re not seeing new ideas that will address the problem. So we’ve decided to see whether an open innovation approach can provide some fresh thinking and suggest some new ideas that will lead to a solution.

What are some of the key attributes you’d like to see in a winning solution?

The main features of a solution would be that it can provide alarms to an operations center to advise when blockages are occurring. It will be a monitor that can be installed on existing networks probably at manholes. It should be able to reliably and accurately detect when blockages have built up to 50% of the pipe diameter. The system will be robust and capable of operating in sewer conditions and will be self-powered and capable of communicating into SCADA systems. Ideally the system will need little maintenance and should provide a cost effective solution to enable real time on-line monitoring.

Thank you for your time, Steve. Any final advice to Solvers as they tackle this exciting Challenge?

Just to say if you think you have something we should look at but are not sure about putting it forward please do so – we’d love to hear from you about your idea. There could be a massive market for any system and it’s all about providing excellent customer service in pre-empting problems before they occur.

Click here to view the UKWIR challenge.


Seeker Spotlight: General Fusion

GeneralFusionGeneral Fusion has launched its first Challenge, “Method for Sealing Anvil Under Repetitive Impacts Against Molten Metal”, in partnership with Innocentive. The Theoretical Challenge seeks a new sealing method for a key component of General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion energy system, offering a prize of $20,000 for a winning solution.

Hi Brendan, thanks for joining us today. To start, could you tell us a bit about General Fusion?

Simply put, General Fusion is developing commercial fusion energy. Founded in 2002 near Vancouver, Canada, our now-65-employee-company – mainly physicists and engineers – is supported by a world-class group of energy venture capital funds, industry leaders, and technology pioneers, such as Jeff Bezos. General Fusion is widely recognized as the global leader in Magnetized Target Fusion, which we believe to be the fastest, most practical and lowest cost path to commercial fusion energy.

What is fusion energy?

Fusion occurs when two hydrogen atoms are heated to extreme temperatures and “fuse” together, creating a helium atom and releasing energy. Fusion powers the sun, and all of the stars for that matter. Here on Earth, heat energy from fusion could be used to produce steam to drive electrical turbines or for industrial process heat.

And what would be the benefits of fusion energy over existing energy sources?

Fusion energy holds immense promise as a clean, safe and abundant energy source. Fusion generates neither pollution nor greenhouse gases. The process is inherently safe in that it can’t run away and produces no long-lived radioactive waste. The fuel is hydrogen –which we can easily extract from seawater and can derive from lithium, both of which are in abundant supply. There’s enough accessible fusion fuel to power the entire planet for hundreds of millions of years.

So how does it work?

Our Magnetized Target Fusion system is based on a sphere into which we pump molten lead-lithium in order to form a vortex – just like the one you see when you drain your bathtub. Once every second, magnetically-confined hydrogen plasma (hot, ionized gas) is injected into that vortex and an array of pistons – or hammers – simultaneously strikes the surface of the sphere, driving a pressure wave into the center of the sphere and compressing the plasma to fusion conditions.

What’s the origin of this first challenge from General Fusion?

The sphere itself isn’t one continuous shell, but rather it has holes all around the surface – one where each hammer strikes. Inside each hole is a cylindrical metal plug – we call them anvils – and the hammers strike the anvils, which move back and forth a few millimeters on each impact, transferring the energy into the molten lead-lithium. This challenge is seeking a new methodology for sealing our anvils into the sphere, while still allowing them to move. This is an engineering problem that we need to solve in order to turn our fusion technology into a commercial power plant.

What are you hoping to achieve with this Challenge and can you describe the impact of a successful solution?

We’ve been working with a simple graphite gasket seal which can survive a few dozen impacts before it deforms and needs to be replaced. This has been good enough for us to develop our core fusion technology by allowing us to build full-scale prototypes of the pistons and anvils and even a prototype sphere with fourteen of these assemblies (this device is shown in our challenge image) in order to study and optimize the collapsing vortex.

Now we’re looking for a sealing method that will survive impacts once a second for years at a time, or tens of millions of impacts per year. A successful solution to this challenge might not get us there right away – we’re asking for something that will take 1000 impacts – but it will allow us to build a full-scale system demonstrating our Magnetized Target Fusion approach and will hopefully even seed the development of a solution for a commercial power plant.

What was your motivation for crowdsourcing this Challenge?

General Fusion is a small company trying to solve a big problem. We’ve got quite a few talented, smart people here, but we know that there are many talented, smart people elsewhere. We want to tap into a large pool of knowledge spanning a broad variety of industries in order to find solutions that are creative, practical, or perhaps even already proven in other applications.

This is an example of a problem we believe we could solve ourselves, but doing so will take time and resources, and will probably involve us learning the hard way what won’t work. We think there may be solvers out there who have already worked on similar problems and who have already learned these lessons, or maybe there’s someone who will come up with a really clever idea.

What other benefits do you predict from crowdsourcing?

We’re always looking for ways to go faster. Crowdsourcing this challenge could lead us to a solution faster and more cost effectively than working on it internally would. It will also allow us to focus on the other key technical challenges, like plasma physics, in order to progress our fusion technology.

What are the key attributes you’d like to see (or not see) in a winning solution?

The big constraints on this problem are the environmental factors (high temperatures and extreme pressures), the repetitive impacts, and the need to allow the anvil to move. We’re keen to see what kind of creative solutions solvers come up with to address all of these constraints at once.

Any final words of encouragement for our Solvers?

This is an opportunity for anyone to contribute to our mission of changing the world with abundant, clean, safe and affordable energy.  Fusion is hard, and we appreciate your help!

The path to fusion requires many difficult problems to be solved, so we’ve already got a few other challenges in the works that will span a variety of fields, from engineering and materials science, to physics and to computing. So if you don’t win this challenge, or if it’s outside of your area of expertise, keep your sharpened pencils at the ready!

Click here to view the General Fusion Challenge.


Conquer Paralysis Now: A Global Project of the Sam Schmidt Foundation

Seeker Spotlight: Professor Norman Saunders

Conquer Paralysis Now: A Global Project of the Sam Schmidt Foundation

Professor Norman Saunders, University of Melbourne

Professor Norman Saunders, University of Melbourne

With less than 2 weeks to go until the CPN Challenge’s Stage I grants’ deadline, we interviewed Professor Norman Saunders from the University of Melbourne, who is a member of the CPN Science Advisory Council. He shared with us his thoughts about our 10 year Challenge Program and also gave some advice for solvers.

Conquer Paralysis Now: Interview with SAC member Norman Saunders

1) What is your scientific background and how did you end up researching spinal cord injuries (SCI)?

I studied medicine and physiology at University College London from 1957-1967. This was long before the days of MD-PhD programs, but is was also long before the days of computer records, so I was able to save a bit of time by being registered in both Faculties of Medicine and Science without any of the administrators noticing. My PhD was on peripheral nerve regeneration, so I have been aware of neurotrauma problems for the whole of my career. Because of a publication reporting that nerve growth factor (NGF) could promote regeneration in the spinal cord, a pharmaceutical company asked me to test the possible effects of nerve growth factor on nerve regeneration (we could not detect any, although it had some other interesting effects).  That was my first experience of a false dawn in the field of spinal cord research and perhaps the reason that I am profoundly skeptical of many of the claims made by people in the field.

In 1983 my wife, Katarzyna Dziegielewska, and I had the opportunity to visit Australia to do some blood-brain barrier experiments in the pouch young of several marsupial species. When we moved to Southampton in 1986, where I was head of the department of Physiology & Pharmacology for a few years, we set up a colony of another marsupial species, South American Opossums. Marsupials have the big advantage that they are born at a very early stage of development, roughly equivalent to a rat or mouse embryo 2/3rds of the way through gestation. We used them for some blood-brain barrier studies, which we continued on moving to Australia in 1992.

While we were still in Southampton, a good friend from University College days, John Nicholls, had recently move from Stanford University to the Biocenter in Basel. John was interested in spinal cord regeneration and wondered how a newborn marsupial spinal cord would respond to injury. We set up a culture system and found that such cords responded to injury with a profuse growth of axons across the injury. John continued culture experiments with a number of colleagues and students after we moved to Australia. A limitation of cultured spinal cord is that is a bit impractical for the study of behaviour. So once we were established in Australia (initially in Tasmania and later in Melbourne where we are now) we started to do in vivo experiments in opossums. These gave the remarkable result that flowing complete spinal cord transection in the first 2 weeks of life numerous axons grew across the injury site (some were regenerating but the majority were growing as part of normal development). When the animals grew up they could run climb and swim almost as well as uninjured animals.

2) What type of research are you currently working on and what are the potential implications?

We are currently working on recovery from spinal injuries made at different ages in newborn and postnatal South American opossums. An important part of the explanation for the remarkable recovery of these animals is that the inhibitory mechanisms described in the adult spinal cord do not develop until 3-4 weeks of age. An unexpected finding was that opossums with spinal transections made at 4 weeks of age did not grow any axons across the injury site but they could walk (although not use their hind limbs for swimming). We think that the explanation for this is that the spinal cord circuits below (caudal to) the lesion, which were isolated from their normal connections with the brain at 4 weeks of age when the spinal cord was cut, seem to be able to respond to the sensory information from their hind limbs which drives what is called the central pattern generator in the lower part of the spinal cord. This generator produces the normal alternating movements of the hind limbs. Although these opossums can walk quite well when put into a swimming tank they cannot use their hind limbs to swim. When they climb out of the tank and their feet touch the ground they are able to walk again. Placing the animals in water removes a lot of the sensory information to the hind limbs and then cannot move their hind limbs. This is restored when they are out of the water.

My group is also involved in 2 other spinal injury projects. One is to evaluate some new compounds that appear to have neuroprotective effects in adult rats with spinal cord injuries. This of course is a well-established approach to attempting to ameliorate the early effects of spinal cord injury. None of the numerous attempts to do this have so far translated to patients. It remains to be shown whether the 2 families of compounds we are testing will be effective, but I think this will be clearer by next year.

The other project is quite different and in my life-time is probably the only one that will contribute to the well-being of people with spinal cord injuries (and many other disabilities), and involves the use of real-time sailing simulators. These are used to teach people with a whole range of severity of spinal cord injuries (and other causes of disability) to sail on dry land. After about half a dozen sessions of about 45 minutes., all of the people we have taught so far have been able to sail on their own. Some compete including a woman from New Zealand who represented her country in the last Paralympics. There are simulators in Auckland, Baltimore and Melbourne, which between them have been used to teach over 100 people with disabilities (including tetrapelegics) to sail. We are currently running trials to measure the effects on physiology and well-being.

3) What is the most challenging aspect of SCI research right now? The most promising?

I think the general challenge is that in spite of 30 years of intensive and expensive research we still do not have much that is helping people with spinal cord injuries.

Some of the reasons for this were highlighted at a workshop organized by NIH in 2012, a summary of which was published in Nature (Landis et al., 2012, doi:10.1038/nature11556). This included a report from Shai Silberberg (NINDS) showing that papers describing attempts to treat a wide range of neurological disorders in animals were seriously flawed in basic elements of experimental design (power, randomization, blinding and choice of appropriate end points). At the same NIH workshop Ossie Steward presented a report of attempts to replicate about 12 of the apparently most promising preclinical papers describing attempts to treat spinal cord injuries. None could be successfully replicated (Steward et al., 2011; doi:10.1016/j.expneurol.2011.06.017).

The spinal injury field, with strong encouragement from NIH and some journals is now trying to improve standards. It remains to be seen how successful this will be, particularly given that the Stroke field recognised these problems more than 10 years ago and has gone to considerable efforts to promote high standards in basic science. But so far not much new has translated to stroke patients.

Preventing the effects of secondary injury would seem a good way to go, since much of the disability following injury seems to be attributable to the progressive destructive changes in the hours and days after injury. The processes involved have been extensively studied, but so far none of the proposed treatments have been effective, perhaps for reasons highlighted in the NIH workshop.

4) Why did you decide to collaborate with Conquer Paralysis Now?

I was attracted by the approach. The field needs new ideas and new people. Without wishing to cause offence, my observation is that the field is too wedded to a limited range of experimental methods (some of which are not very good) and approaches and the peer review system discourages innovation. I can vouch for this from personal experience. I think the opossum project has gone to our Medical Research Council (NHMRC, Australia) about 20 times in various forms and but has never been supported. The response from various charitable funds has been similar in some case with the question ”why are you not working on rats?”

5) The Conquer Paralysis Now Challenge will award nearly $20 million in grants and prizes over the next 10 years. What is different about this Challenge compared to traditional sources of funding?

The criteria are clearly different from the traditional ones: “out of the box” promotion of collaboration which is often poor in the field because a lot of people seem be to wanting to be the one to ’cure’ spinal cord injury. Medicine can do a good job of patching people up so that they can lead a tolerable life. Cures in the sense taking people back to where they were before their accident or illness occurred are not so common. Also bringing new people into the field. It often seems not to be realised that major advances occur when new people come into a field, perhaps they are not blinkered by the prevailing ideas in the field and come with fresh approaches.

6) How would you respond to those who believe it is too ambitious to think we can restore functions of people suffering from chronic paralysis?

Spinal cord injury is undoubtedly a difficult problem to deal with. But I think with a gradual approach of trying to improve function and well-being with less overoptimistic interpretation of what prove to be unrepeatable experiments then I do think that progress will be made.

7) Any final words of advice or guidance for people looking to enter the Challenge?

Think imaginatively and don’t take too much notice of what is already happening in the field (it isn’t working!). Try to do the best experiments you can.  A negative result is not a failure. Providing the experiments were well done it shows that a particular approach in the context of how it was tested did not work and is therefore not worth following up or fro others to repeat. A negative result from some really well conducted experiments is worth more than poorly conducted experiments with an apparently positive outcome. Although of course I hope that your experiments do work!

You can enter and find out more about the CPN Challenge here