Our network of problem solvers is increasingly global and diverse, made up of both individuals and companies. But who are the companies involved in solving InnoCentive Challenges and why do they do it? What advice might they have for other companies wanting to become Solvers? To find out, we spoke to Camille Pinard, Structured Projects Manager at the MCA GROUPE – a global engineering and high-tech consulting company and two-time winners of InnoCentive Challenges (9933751 and 9933755).
You’ve now won two InnoCentive Challenges. Can you tell us a bit about the solutions you proposed?
What’s interesting here is that the two Challenges were very different in nature. The first one related to a very common issue faced by all industries with large networks (power grid, railway, telecom…). The Challenge was to build a monitoring system that could detect blockages and leaks in a city-wide sewer network. As sewer networks are extremely large, cost, maintenance and operability quickly become major hurdles. Fortunately, MCA has experience working with a wide range of industries, so we recognized this as a problem that has already been solved several times. Indeed, there are two approaches for dealing with this kind of large-scale monitoring issue. You can opt for a system that uses a few costly mobile machines, or you can implement a system based on a myriad of fixed, cheap sensors. We went for the second solution, and were able to prove that it was both technically possible and better suited from a cost-benefits perspective.
The second Challenge related to more of a nation-wide economic and wastage problem. There was a given product (old LPG cylinders) which had to be entirely removed from the market for safety reasons, and be recycled into another product, with the hope that the new product would generate as much value as possible. Technical feasibility wasn’t the main issue here. What mattered were the materials used, industrial capacity, markets, and cost. As a result, we came up with an industrial plan for converting old cylinders into millions of rocket stoves, and were able to relate the stoves’ cost to the buying capacity of local households.
How were you able to create these winning solutions? Did past experience help?
I believe what helped most was that we had clearly defined problems to work on, with crystal clear evaluation criteria. It was then possible to compare our potential solutions, to choose the one with the most potential and to optimize it. Secondly, in both cases we were able to connect our ideas to existing solutions. The sewer network monitoring system was directly inspired by a very similar railway example, and rocket stoves are already very common in sub-Saharan Africa. This alone doesn’t prove that these solutions were the best suited, but it at least demonstrates the solution is technically viable.
Tell us more about how you approach InnoCentive Challenges – are they assigned to an individual or team to work on, or are they side projects that you challenge everyone in your organization to tackle?
We allocate these Challenges towards our dedicated innovation program called ICP, for Innovation Contests & Projects. The program aims at proving MCA’s competitiveness and at developing partnerships from there, and we invite all our engineers to participate whenever they are available.
Aside from the prize money, what do you see as some of the opportunities or benefits that InnoCentive Challenges can bring?
For a company like ours, the prize money is not the ultimate goal, as often it only just covers the cost of putting together the solution. This is why we actively seek further collaboration with Seekers when we win, although of course this is not always possible when the Seeker is anonymous. But for the sewer network Challenge for instance, we are now in discussions with the Seeker about creating a pilot system.
Why do you invest your time and resources in entering InnoCentive Challenges?
As an engineering company, we do value innovation but innovation involves high risks. Unclear definitions of projects, lack of funding and oversized ambitions count amongst the most frequent hurdles. By using InnoCentive, we know that (a) all Seekers have properly defined their evaluation criteria, (b) a budget has already been allocated, proving the Seeker’s willingness to spend money on their problem, and (c) there are clear parameters to the problem and solution spaces. In addition, making contacts through InnoCentive means every future partnership starts off on the right foot. The mutual confidence we build through this first success is key in later stages of work, when difficulties may arise.
As a two time winner, do you have any advice for solvers looking to win InnoCentive Challenges?
There is a lot of advice we could give to people looking to solve InnoCentive Challenges but the most important is that they match their solution to the evaluation criteria. InnoCentive has the advantage of often having very well-defined criteria, therefore every inch of paper which does not relate to these criteria is superfluous.