I’m a Solver: Madhavi Muranjan


Madhavi Muranjan is a repeat InnoCentive Solver.  With a background in biotech, Madhavi is able to further put to use her skillset and unique viewpoints.  The following is a discussion on what brought Madhavi to InnoCentive and what participating in Challenges means to her.

I was born and brought up in India. I am creative and curious by nature. This and the desire to alleviate human suffering due to infectious epidemics like malaria and sleeping sickness is what drove me towards my Ph.D. in molecular microbiology from the Ohio State University. While the passion for science was a combination of wanting to impact betterment of humanity and an insane desire to “crack the puzzle” that was my Ph.D. project, I was blessed with the mentorship of Dr. Samuel James Black, a brilliant scientist and thinker. He encouraged all the creativity and imagination in me, and taught me to harness it towards science. Then I was again very lucky to work with Dr. Victor Nussenzweig at NYU Medical Center for my first post-doc. He inspired me with his quickness of mind and mastery of science. There is no greater thrill in the “chase”, the mystery solving and the detective work than you get out of challenges mother nature puts out for us all, and that feeling of solving her challenges I wouldn’t trade for anything else.

Following a post-doc at Johns Hopkins in malaria, I entered biotech industry as a senior scientist for a startup company, later as a principal scientist at a biosimilars company, and at an innovator antibodies company, where I learnt much about developing and operation of science from conception to clinical trial and gaining regulatory approval. However, opportunities for creativity and problem solving in major corporate are limited.  So, InnoCentive came to the rescue- in July 2009 I discovered this great site via My biotech exposure made me particularly sympathetic to patients who suffered the lethal PML disease as an adverse effect of an otherwise efficacious antibody. A company wanted an animal model for PML; a successful approach would have strong preclinical and clinical impact. To my surprise the idea I proposed was recognized and awarded.

It is very satisfying to study and understand new problems, even more to think of a possible solution, and the best to not only get a prize in return, but to know that your idea may actually be the one to solve a major global problem. My greatest reward from InnoCentive is the solving of three biomedical challenges- the satisfaction of a job well done far surpasses any job one may hold.  InnoCentive is the most facile, productive and transparent open innovation company to launch fertile ideas and help not only widely diverse industries and businesses, but finally humanity at large. I only wish Innocentive would publish the idea that finally worked “ in the field”, even if it is some years after reduction to practice.

You don’t have to have the technical background or training for solving some of the Innocentive challenges. All you need is to try your brain at something new with the zeal to learn and apply, and the awareness that it may generate intellectual property that would resolve  a serious problem. The best part is that you don’t need to have a complete cast-iron idea; suggestion of incipient ideas flowing in the right direction can be just as valuable for future evolution.

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I’m a Solver: Nithin Thomas of SQR Systems

GSC Profile_smallNithin Thomas is CEO of SQR Systems, recent winner of The Global Security Challenge, which brings together innovative startups and industry stakeholders for pitches, panels and networking. SQR Systems was named the winner in the pre-revenue category by the panel of judges. To view the summary of the Summit, please click here.

I am the co-founder and CEO of SQR Systems. I set up the company in late 2010 to commercialise some of the technology I developed during my PhD at the University of Bristol. I was looking at new ways of securely transmitting video data over networks with poor connectivity. When I saw an opportunity commercialise this technology I started SQR Systems with my co-founder, Rockman Law.

Early on in our startup adventure, we realised that our technology could offer a very compelling capability in the defence and security sectors, where surveillance from remote and often hostile locations is very difficult. After partnering with BAE Systems we were able to attract the attention of the UK Ministry of Defence, who have funded us to develop the technology further for military and government applications. Our technology allows video to be transmitted over networks with unpredictable bandwidth and connectivity, while preserving end-to-end security by ensuring the data stays encrypted throughout the transmission process. Every user is able to receive the best possible quality video over their connection.

We are a growing company and have a really energetic team with a blend of youth and experience. Dr. Naventhan Mahadevan and Roderick Hodgson joined the company this year and brought a lot of experience in commercial product development. Admiral Amjad Hussain and Dr. Ray Crispin have also joined our board and brought a great deal of wisdom and experience to the team. We are all driven by a shared vision to build great technology and solve some of the difficult challenges for our customers.

We came to hear of the Global Security Challenge during the early days of the company. There were very few opportunities in our sector for startups and the Global Security Challenge was a really exciting platform where startups working on security technologies were able to showcase their ideas in front of a high profile audience. After attending the event in 2011 and really enjoying the experience at the event, we decided to compete in the event in 2013, when it was re-launched.

I found the application process very useful and it got me thinking of areas of the business that are easy to ignore amidst the excitement of building a technology startup. The pitch was also a valuable experience to focus me on the absolute essentials of the business. The feedback from the judges, who are leaders in their field was very valuable and being able to compete with some of the other startups from around the world was a great experience.



I’m a Solver: Chris Swan of CohesiveFT


Chris Swan is CTO at CohesiveFT, the recent winner of The Global Security Challenge, which brings together innovative startups and industry stakeholders for pitches, panels and networking. Our PR firm, Groshelle Communications, and GSC founder Simon Schneider both suggested we apply and pitch at GSC, considering our history in the cloud computing industry. Chris pitched at this year’s Summit as part of a large lineup of innovative cyber security technologies from around the world. CohesiveFT was named the winner in the post-revenue category by the panel of judges. To view the summary of the Summit, please click here.


CohesiveFT was formed back in 2006 by a group of financial services veterans who came from enterprise IT and management.  I joined the team this April as the Chief Technology Officer. In addition to my technology focus, I’ve been a speaker at a few industry events including 451 Research Group’s Hosting and Cloud Transformation Summit (HCTS), the Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA) Forecast, and coming up at Interop NY.

The CohesiveFT team saw what we’ve come to call “cloud computing” coming, and knew that industries like finance would have even more security and connectivity needs than others. I was friends with the founders, and watched their company grow and evolve. I also kept in touch by participating in the regular CloudCamp London “un-conference” events that Chris Purrington co-founded and still organizes.

When not at events, I focus on product development and delivery. Through our product demonstrations and testing, I’ve had the opportunity to continue exploring public, private and hybrid cloud technologies. Recently, I’ve been impressed with Google Cloud (Google Compute Engine, or GCE) and the networking technologies there.

My career prior to CohesiveFT has the same financial services and heritage as the other founders. At UBS, I was the CTO for Client Experience where I worked on strategy and architecture for web and mobile offerings across all regions and business divisions. I was also previously co-head of Security CTO, focusing on identity management, access control and data security. I had the opportunity to represent UBS as a Director on the Steering Committee of the Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA) – an organisation I remain very involved in as CohesiveFT is a solution provider member.

Before UBS, I was a CTO at a London-based technology investment banking boutique, which operated a cloud-only IT platform. My first introduction to cloud and virtualization came at Credit Suisse where I built a global grid platform before moving into the IT R&D team where I covered infrastructure software, networking and security.

CohesiveFT released their first networking product in 2008, having seen that organizations wanted to reuse existing controls for security, monitoring and management as they moved workloads to the cloud. Our network function virtualization product,

VNS3, provides overlay networking capabilities to allow users to control addressing, topology, protocols and encrypted communications for business applications. With VNS3, enterprise IT teams can manage and run key systems and cloud-based servers as if they are running in on-premise data centres.

Since I started, CohesiveFT have launched the 3.0 versions and cloud service provider editions of VNS3 and Server3 products. We approached the Global Security Challenge with the goal of explaining our history in the cloud computing industry and our high expectations for the future.

With VNS3, enterprise customers can provide secure access between corporate data centres and cloud-based systems. It requires no new knowledge or training to implement, so customers can be easily create and start work on their applications without changing vendors, relearning software, or hiring more staff.



I’m a Solver: Sitali Mushemi-Blake

Sitali Mushemi-Blake and her team at Cardiac Health Across Zambia (CHAZ) won two prizes, Best Idea and Collegiality, in the Lion’s Den Challenge. InnoCentive delivered the Lion’s Den Programme in cooperation with King’s College London.

I am the founder of a social enterprise called Cardiac Health Across Zambia (CHAZ) and a post-doctorate cardiac research physiologist based at King’s College London.

I first heard of the Lion’s Den Challenge through a close friend, Dr. Jason Mellad, who won the competition in 2010. I since wanted to enter the competition but remained focused and dedicated to completing my degree. Besides, I had too much on my plate at the time juggling studies, work, and life balances as a mother. When I finished defending my PhD thesis in Cardiovascular Medicine in the Fall of 2012, I received a circulating email informing prospect applicants that the Challenge was running for 2012-13. My focus changed as I realised that the window of opportunity was narrow.

My experience with the InnoCentive team has been a very positive one from the time I first walked through the door. Despite my lack of business experience, I quickly felt at home. I was keen to win the prize, and therefore attended the associated seminars and contributed to group discussions. The seminars proved to be a great source of information regarding business awareness, the different stages involved in the competition, and identifying strong team players. I made use of the networking sessions by speaking to attending mentors, guest speakers, and previous winners. The team at InnoCentive followed up on my email enquiries regarding able mentors.

It was after attending team building seminars that I trusted my ‘gut instincts’ in finding prospective passionate team members to help develop my idea. Our highly specialised multi-disciplinary and culturally diverse team from Kings College London consisted of myself (an imaging specialist), Dr. Sitara Khan (a cardiac registrar), and Dr. Yiwen Liu (a cardiac scientist) – a team with skill sets that if partnered with the Zambian government would make an impact on people’s lives. We worked incredibly well together and were able to effectively focus on different areas of the business.

Our hard work was guided and supported by two great mentors, Mr. Zulfiqar Deo and Mr. Gerry Creedon, who were able to develop my initial idea. What started out as a vague idea for a clinic in Zambia grew to a plan for a social enterprise providing training for Zambians and students for the UK.

As a team, we worked hard alongside our mentors to draw up a business plan and submit our proposal, which to our delight made it to the semifinals. We had to work even harder to consolidate our idea into a six-minute pitch to present in front of the judging panel and the Lion’s Den team. Our hard work paid off and our team was awarded not one, but two prizes: Best Business Idea and Collegiality.

Winning the Lion’s Den Challenge has helped our enterprise secure seed funds to register our company and cover some of the legal costs. My experience with InnoCentive has no doubt enhanced my career path and confidence.

To all future entrants of the Lion’s Den Challenge or any competitions organised through InnoCentive, my advice would be: As Sir James Black said to me in 2008, “pick up those pebbles on the beach because if you don’t, someone else will.”


I’m a Solver: Adam Rivers

Adam Rivers, a Nature-referred Solver, won the Heat Stable Prevention of Flavan3-ols – Iron (II) Interactions Challenge.

I recently solved a Challenge about milkshakes that seemingly had nothing to do with my day job working as a postdoc in marine science at the University of Georgia. I’m a biological oceanographer by training, but the Challenge I solved was about iron and beverage discoloration. During my PhD at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/MIT, I studied how marine microbes interact with natural iron binding chemicals called siderophores. When I read the detailed description of the problem, I realized that it was essentially another case of an iron complexation reaction that occurs naturally in the ocean. Almost immediately, I had a few ideas. I ran through some of the kinetic equations and did a bit of kitchen chemistry, and after a long weekend, I had come up with a solution to the problem.

I read about InnoCentive on a few years back and signed up to receive emails about Challenges. All of the problems don’t catch my eye, but occasionally, there will be a problem that I quickly have an idea about. I’m always dreaming up new products or ways to improve things. If you have that kind of personality, ideas (some good, some bad) come all the time, but of course you can’t pursue most of them. It can take years to pursue an idea academically or start a company based on an idea. InnoCentive is great because it allows anyone to invest a little bit of time writing up the sort of ideas that come to them all the time.

I have a long-term goal to build simple devices that can describe microbial communities remotely and send that ecological information to a web browser anywhere. As a spinout of that work, I’ve built a user-friendly lab freezer monitor that I’m trying to commercialize. Developing a product is a very different process; the biggest challenge is not solving a problem but making sure you are solving the right problem. With InnoCentive Challenges, the problem has already been found, I just focus on finding an answer. It’s fun to have an outlet to apply my knowledge in unexpected ways. My training in one field brought a fresh perspective to a problem in another field; the ability of open innovation to borrow ideas from other fields was certainly an advantage in solving this Challenge.


I’m a Solver: Bogdan and Stephanie Yamkovenko

Bogdan and Stephanie Yamkovenko won The Economist-Nielsen Data Visualization Challenge, which asked the World to review Nielsen consumer data, generate insightful conclusions with broad implications, and present a compelling visual presentation of the most interesting ideas from the data. Over 4,000 Solvers from 101 countries signed up to participate in the Challenge. To view the Yamkovenko’s winning submission, a video of them presenting it at The Economist World in 2013 Festival, and profiles of all the Challenge finalists, please click here.

We saw an advertisement in The Economist for the Data Visualization Challenge sponsored by Nielsen and The Economist. The focus of the Challenge was to analyze a data set provided by Nielsen and to tell a story using data visualization. I am a journalist and have also done graphic design in the past, so I knew I could handle the visual story telling. Bogdan is a researcher and assistant professor with an affinity for statistics, which means that he could easily handle the data analysis.

Bogdan and I have been married for six years and had never previously collaborated professionally on a project. This Data Visualization Challenge was a great opportunity for us to combine our skills and, ultimately, be competitive.

We began our work on the Challenge with a brainstorm about the Nielsen global dataset, which consisted of the Nielsen Global Consumer Confidence Index and other data about consumer spending and purchasing habits. We decided to supplement the dataset with other widely available economic indicators (such as unemployment rates). We noticed that countries that had high confidence in their economies were not necessarily the best performing economies.

When working on my master’s degree in journalism, I developed an appreciation for my profession’s role as the “fourth estate.” As we looked at the confidence index, we noticed that countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt had high confidence, but their economies weren’t doing that great. We wondered whether democracy was playing a role in the citizens’ confidence. We decided to include the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index in our analysis, and found that countries with the highest confidence also had the most restricted press. This finding gave us a compelling story to tell and gave the original Nielsen dataset more context and depth. Read more


I’m a Solver: Torsten Hothorn

Dr. Torsten Hothorn has been on quite a run lately working on Prodigy “Big Data” Challenges. Recently, he won the $30,000 Cleveland Clinic Challenge, Build an Efficient Pipeline to Find the Most Powerful Predictors, and he earned a $10,000 award for his second place finish in The DREAM-Phil Bowen ALS Prediction Prize4Life Challenge. (We recently profiled Lilly Fang, a member of one of the two first place winning teams for the Prize4Life Challenge, and also posted a Seeker Spotlight featuring Prize4Life’s Neta Zach which dives into the background of the Challenge and final results). We’re happy to have Dr. Hothorn here to discuss his experience with these important Challenges.

I am a Professor of Biostatistics in the Department of Statistics at the University of Munich, Germany, and I’m interested in both methodological developments and applications of statistical models in medicine and biology. Research and teaching in Biostatistics ideally brings together practical problems and statistical theory. While I mainly teach students of statistics, I enjoy working with scientists from fields as diverse as oncology, ecology, and forestry. Because a statistical model is only useful when it actually can be applied to gain insights into aspects of data that otherwise would remain hidden, I spend a lot of time developing and implementing new statistical models. Some open source software packages to which I contributed are distributed via CRAN, the R package repository.

Developing statistical software always means pushing forward existing functionality. One of the best and most effective ways to find out where improvements are needed most is to work on the solution of practical problems, apply the software, and look at the results. While I’m not short of collaborators with interesting problems, I decided to give one of the Cleveland Clinic Challenges hosted by InnoCentive a shot when I first learned about InnoCentive in the Fall of 2011. In 2004 and 2006, I authored two scholarly papers about nonparametric survival models that also work in the presence of numerous potentially predictive variables. The Cleveland Clinic Challenge, “Build an Efficient Pipeline to Find the Most Powerful Predictors,” was an exact match for the models that I developed and described in these two papers. Luckily, I had already invested a fair amount of time into a software implementation, using the R add-on package “party,” and thus the solution was (almost) at my fingertips.

I must admit that “The DREAM-Phil Bowen ALS Prediction Prize4Life Challenge” was a little more challenging than I first thought. With the patient data coming from different clinical trials, it took a while to compile the data into a format suitable for statistical analysis. The relatively complex longitudinal structure of the data, the expected weak association between predictor variables and ALS disease progression, and the large amount of missing values in some of the potentially interesting predictor variables suggested that a nonparametric regression approach (e.g., random forests), might be a good candidate for a potential solution. However, the Challenge data gave me a hard time predicting ALS disease progression with good accuracy. Eventually, I went back and started from scratch. First, I slightly reformulated the Challenge objective by using an alternative statistical measure for describing the disease progression of a patient. In a second step, I collected as much information as I could about the disease progression in the first three months in which a patient was under observation. I observed that using these variables as predictors of the new ALS disease progression measure lead to better performing models.

Besides my interest in applying software that I developed and the thrill of competing with people from all over the world in this prediction Challenge – the InnoCentive leaderboard is really something one can get addicted to – I look forward to using the PRO-ACT database (a subset of which the Prize4Life Challenge was based on) in the classroom. Next spring, I’ll teach longitudinal data analysis and I intend to let my students work with the ALS patient data. That way, my students will be constantly reminded what the models and formulae presented on the blackboard are actually good for and what scientific obligation to society actually means to a statistician.


I’m a Solver: Lilly Fang

Earlier this month, Prize4Life announced the winners of the DREAM-Phil Bowen ALS Prediction Prize4Life Challenge, also known as the ALS Prediction Prize. Lilly Fang (and her partner Lester Mackey) is a member of one of the two first place winning teams. We recently posted a Seeker Spotlight featuring Prize4Life’s Neta Zach which dives into the background of the Challenge and final results. In this post, we’re happy to introduce Lilly Fang and learn about her experience with the Challenge.

I am a recent graduate of Stanford Law School and a new associate at Latham & Watkins in Silicon Valley. Prior to attending law school, I worked at an economic consulting firm in New York and received my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton.  

I first heard of InnoCentive through my boyfriend, Lester Mackey, who is now a postdoc in the statistics department at Stanford. Because I was slated to start work at the end of October, I was looking at a good three months of free time after my bar exam in July. Lester, who had been involved in this kind of competition before, suggested that we work on a machine learning Challenge together during this time.  

Among the Challenges we considered, the DREAM-Phil Bowen ALS Prediction Prize4Life Challenge stood out as one that seemed particularly meaningful and well-timed. We were excited by the potential of making a real contribution to the study of ALS (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) through this Challenge. ALS causes progressive loss of motor function in patients and typically leads to death in about three years. Currently, there is no cure, and the causes are not well understood.

The task set out by the Challenge was to take patient data from the first three months of a clinical trial and use it to predict the rate of progression of the disease over the following nine months. One of the reasons that this Challenge had so much potential for new findings was that the data provided was a subset of the new Pooled Resource Open-Access ALS Clinical Trials (PRO-ACT) database, which is the largest ALS clinical trials database ever created. Read more


I’m a Solver: Sumit Bhardwaj

Last week, we announced the winners of the Scalable System to Track Electronic Waste Challenge. This Challenge, run by EMC Corporation in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and InnoCentive, sought solutions for tracking shipments of used electronic components and subsystems and ensuring that they are disposed of responsibly. Sumit Bhardwaj was one of the three winners of this Challenge.

My day job is to handle digital marketing for a large telecommunications company in London, but my evenings, weekends and other free time (such as my tube journeys) are spent either writing papers for my Ph.D. or working on finding solutions to intriguing problems. 

As someone who holds two postgraduate degrees in business administration and information technology and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of London, I am passionate about solving complex problems using technology. I strongly believe that everyday people can collaborate and create simple, easily implementable, cost effective, and scalable solutions.

I first heard about InnoCentive in 2010 from an entrepreneur friend at an alumni gathering. He described InnoCentive as “a global network to find solutions to the world’s problems.” It sounded intriguing enough so I signed up immediately and realized he was largely correct. In this day and age, where the extent of interaction on social networks is limited to liking some post or tweeting about it, there is InnoCentive, which connects people to real-world Challenges and gives them an opportunity to harness their critical thinking and contribute something meaningful.

I started participating actively as a Solver in 2011 and came across the “e-waste” Challenge which sought a scalable system to track electronic waste. Considering that there are about 500,000 tons of electronic waste in the U.S. alone, it’s clearly a huge problem. Moreover, sustainability is now considered a megatrend. The Challenge seemed both relevant and well timed, so I decided to participate and contribute what I could.

Having worked on RFID technology extensively as part of a previous research project some time back, I had a good idea of the technology’s capabilities. Hence, I decided to apply the same technology to find a solution for the problem at hand. I researched some of the most prevalent ways to destroy and track electronic waste, tried understanding the limitations of each method, and finally chose one that I believed had the most potential to be developed into a solution. I also studied some of the latest tracking technologies and evaluated the possibility of integrating them into my solution. The other factor I kept in mind was to ensure that the solution was economical so that it could be easy to implement and highly scalable. I submitted my solution and I am thrilled to be rewarded as one of the winning solutions. 

Previously, I participated in The Economist-InnoCentive Transparency Challenge. For that Challenge, which sought ideas for achieving transparency in government, I suggested a Facebook app that would collect data directly from citizens, enabling government to collaborate directly with citizens and attain creative solutions to various civil problems. My solution made it to the final screening, but the Challenge was ultimately won by Ben Skowera. I read about his solution and really liked his way of approaching the problem.

Thank you very much for reading and I wish all the best to everyone who is participating in InnoCentive Challenges.

Sumit lives in Southfields, London with his wife and enjoys going on long countryside walks.

Ben Skowera, winner of The Economist-InnoCentive Transparency Challenge

I’m a Solver: Ben Skowera

Ben Skowera is the winner of The Economist-InnoCentive Transparency Challenge.

I am an Associate at SEI Investments in Oaks, Pennsylvania, where I’m currently working on the online software development team performing quality assurance and business analysis for our products. My past projects at SEI have also included web product strategy, international new service development, project management, and operational process improvement. I graduated from Lehigh University in 2009 with a B.S. in Industrial Engineering and a minor in Economics.

I first learned of InnoCentive through a news article about technology and innovation and I decided to sign up. Shortly after, I came across The Economist-InnoCentive Transparency Challenge in one of the site’s weekly Challenge Bulletins. The Challenge tasked Solvers with developing an innovative way to utilize technology to drive transparency in the government. With the upcoming presidential elections and the political turmoil occurring throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa, I thought this topic was both extremely relevant and important.

I believe having a basic knowledge of the government, political processes, and current political events is a very important part of anyone’s involvement in government and politics. After performing research into how people obtain information about their governments, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t a sufficient way to truly understand the impact that political decisions have on us and our values and how well our elected officials are representing us over time. This is why I proposed my solution of creating a website that delivers personal and easy-to-understand, value-based political analysis by utilizing technologies and techniques used in online dating, social networking, and metric-based dashboard design.

As part of the award, I traveled to the Ideas Economy: Innovation 2012 event in Berkeley, California, where I was interviewed on stage by Matthew Bishop, US Business Editor and New York Bureau Chief of The Economist. The experience was incredible and so was the opportunity to meet and speak with some of the amazing people that attended the event. [editor note: to see Ben’s interview at the event, click on the link above]

By connecting organizations with problems to Solvers that reside outside of specific localities or the four walls of typical organization, I believe InnoCentive is creating a great opportunity for both people and organizations to take advantage of the tremendous knowledge the world has to offer. As more and more people connect due to the expansion of technology and the internet, I believe InnoCentive has developed a great way to bring together everyone’s ideas and create a global community to solve the world’s biggest problems.

I wish the best of luck to all future InnoCentive Solvers.