Crystallised Challenges – Some Favorites From Our Fifteen Years

Posted by Michael Franklin on Aug 24, 2016 6:53:00 AM

Starting as a brainwave in 1998, InnoCentive spent three years being scoped, explored and tested whilst within the walls of pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly. InnoCentive became an official entity in 2001 and during the intervening fifteen years has posted over 2,000 Challenges and awarded nearly $20million. To mark our 15th birthday we look back at notable successes, celebrate the impact Challenges have made, and most importantly acknowledge our excellent Solvers whose ground-breaking ideas have been given the opportunity to flourish through the Challenge Driven Innovation model.


Firstly, let’s return back to 2012 and this $1 million DNA Sequence Challenge that was looking for algorithms to analyse genetic sequence samples and report the identities of each organism. Over 2,750 Solvers opened Project Rooms to begin working on this problem with the aim of producing source code which would be tested by the Seeker. After a six-month posting period and three months of rigorous testing the full $1million award was then paid out to one talented Solver.

Digging even deeper into InnoCentive’s history, this Challenge posted in 2007. Following a series of high-profile oil spills, there was an increasing need for a method to break the viscous shear of crude oil in cold weather conditions; in doing so allowing the oil to then be collected from the water and environmental disasters mitigated. While receiving lower responses than the first Challenge we highlighted, the social benefit that this Challenge brought, alongside the ingenuity needed to overcome a decade old industry problem, highlights the power of crowdsourcing in connecting diverse ideas and people with problems that matter. In fact the winning Solver, John Davis of the United States, had never been involved in the oil or disaster recovery fields, but converted his knowledge of the concrete industry to present a ground-breaking solution.

The third Challenge for revisiting is the NIH Single Cell Analysis Challenge. Posted more recently in 2014, this Challenge had two stages; a Phase 1 Theoretical with $100,000 of prizes, followed by $400,000 on offer for the Phase 2 Reduction to Practice. With the ultimate goal of developing new tools and methods to provide time-dependent measurements for single-cells in complex tissues, solutions would give information on the health of the individual cell; helping diagnosis and decisions on treatments. This Challenge is still ongoing with five Solvers being invited to participate in Phase 2 and provide working prototypes; if any of the working prototypes are deemed successful, the benefits to society are obvious and widespread.

So far, the three Challenges highlighted have been looking at cutting-edge science – research coming from top-end institutions and individuals that will then be harnessed primarily by the western world. In comparison, the MasterCard Foundation Challenge instead focused on a different field and a different target audience; it was looking for novel business models or practices that could be implemented in the developing world to meet the needs of those in poverty. In particular, it was looking for organisations that were already working in this space and wanted to showcase the great work they were undertaking; by doing so, helping them multiply their impact. $150,000 award was offered along with a chance to present at the world leading 2015 MasterCard Foundation Symposium on Financial Inclusion. BIMA mobile, a financial service provider that targets customers at high risk from illness and injury, was selected the overall winner of the Prize. You can read the case study here.

Continuing the third sector trend, to look back to 2006 and a partnership that was initiated with the Rockefeller Foundation, this alliance allowed interested non-profits to post their scientific or technological problems as InnoCentive Challenges. Ten Challenges were posted over the first three years, with an 80% success rate seen. One Challenge of particular note was run by SunNight Solar and sought a design for a dual purpose, self-contained solar light that could illuminate a room. A pioneering design was proposed by a New Zealand based Solver, and after being awarded and sent through to be manufactured, it has been distributed across Africa, Palestine, and other areas where sufficient electricity does not exist.

Finally, to look back at a 2009 Challenge posted by NASA, this Challenge sought methods to record Solar Particle Events that can be highly dangerous to space missions by interfering with electrical and communications equipment, and through radiation dangers to the astronauts. A method already existed, but it provided inaccurate predictions with short notice. By running this Challenge, NASA connected with a retired radio engineer who managed to combine his past knowledge of plasma physics to create a winning solution that more than doubled the accuracy of predictions and doubled the notice time it gave. This confluence of knowledge created the cutting-edge idea and gave huge value to NASA – and in return received the $30,000 award. This NASA Challenge was one of a pilot scheme of seven Challenges that they ran with InnoCentive and spurred a continued partnership.


While we gorge ourselves on cake and champagne, the fifteen-year mark also gives a great chance for reflection. The Challenges that have worked well, and those that haven’t. The brilliant Solvers who have provided solutions. The impact Challenges have had tackling social issues. Providing an alternative innovation methodology that has proved its effectiveness, reliability and longevity. Driving science forward. 

Thanks to all those who have been part of the journey for the past fifteen years, and we look forward to working with all those who will be involved for the next fifteen. You can read the press release announcing our 15th birthday here .

Interested in running your own Challenges? Contact us today.

Topics: Challenges

Follow InnoCentive

Search Blog

Join 5,000+ Subscribers

Recent Posts