When NOT to Take the Lead: Partnering with Academia to Solve Our Nation’s Problems

This past week, I was up in Boston recruiting at MIT and Harvard and meeting with some of the Cambridge brain trust that are thinking about how to leverage technology, policy, and new incentive schemes to spur entrepreneurial markets and transform the government. During one of these fascinating coffee sessions with Georgina Campbell, a current student in my former graduate program (the Technology Policy Program at MIT), I learned about a phenomenal example of partnerships furthering innovation and entrepreneurship—the MIT clean energy prize. Georgina is one of this year’s managing directors. The MIT Clean Energy Prize (CEP) is a venture creation and innovation competition that was established in 2008 to encourage innovation in the energy space, specifically with regard to clean energy (see this executive summary for more detail on the prize). Since 2008, over 200 student teams from more than 60 U.S. universities have entered the competition. By the end of the 2010 competition, more than $800,000 in cash prizes will have been awarded. Furthermore, the CEP has only been around for 3 years yet the past teams have managed to raise over $65 million to support their clean energy technologies, including $13 million from the government-sponsored Advanced Research Project Funding for Energy (ARPA-E) program. The Department of Energy (DoE) is a key partner in this competition, providing much of the cash prize the last three years. There are several interesting things about this prize in particular:

  • The DoE is a crucial partner, but not the lead on furthering this problem solving effort. As I’ve outlined before, prizes and competitions provide one way to stimulate innovation and tap “solver communities” that may not have been leveraged previously when considering some of our nation’s grand challenges (see my blog posting from the White House/ Case Foundation event on prizes and competitions in April where I discuss this assertion in more detail). Much of the recent discussion on prizes and competitions, even at the Gov 2.0 summit, has focused on prizes that are spearheaded by the Federal government. What the clean energy prize demonstrates is that the government is in many cases an essential partner in tapping solver communities, but that driving prizes and competitions does not need to always be the government’s primary responsibility. In this case, MIT is taking the lead, partnering with the government, giving graduate students an opportunity to learn the skills required to support this type of innovation, and producing technology innovations that are market-ready. The government does not always need to take the lead for prizes and competitions to be highly effective—as most commonly recognized through the X Prize Foundation’s work.
  • Teams must be at least 50% made up of students and thus the “solver” base is motivated to participate by a variety of different things. Many mechanisms motivate teams to participate, including: the prize purse; superlative feedback on their entries from world class judging panels; a team-specific mentoring experience from dedicated and experienced industry, business and legal experts (in the semi-final rounds); feedback on business cases and entrepreneurial approaches to commercializing new technologies; and the opportunity to become part of a network of clean energy professionals and connect with potential clients and partners. Just by participating, students are engaged outside the classroom setting, given an opportunity to extend classroom theory to practice, and directly involved in strengthening Academic-Federal-Private relationships. This reinforces the importance of identifying solver communities in the initial prize design and determining incentives schemes based largely on the targeted solvers. Prizes are not simply “if you build it they will come”; they must be tailored individually to maximize impact.
  • The clean energy mission of this prize furthers one of the highest priorities of the administration, but is likely to not be as well known throughout Washington DC as many of the apps contests and video challenges. To me, this is where the power of challenge.gov as a marketing platform becomes incredibly important to publicize prizes that target solver communities to engage in some of the grand challenges of our time—regardless of whether or not they are led by the federal government. However, this is only one communication channel and many will need to be leveraged to reach the full scope of solvers, influencers, mentors and partners in this issue area. Much more than a storefront will be needed to fully leverage the potential of prizes and competitions.

These interesting tidbits point to the notion that government agencies may need to consider a more organized way to receive competition/challenge participation requests from the public, industry and academia. The number of challenges most Agencies can support is limited, in some part due to internal inertia and support for prizes as a viable model for problem solving. Should the White House and OMB consider a simple policy or memorandum that clarifies how agencies can participate in external challenges much like the MIT challenge mentioned above? That way if an Agency can’t figure out how to support challenges where it takes the leading role, then at least it can judge or somehow participate in some external challenge of some sort. The point is that there are many possible structures and models for meaningful prizes and competitions—which is why intelligent prize design up front is so important.

Any other unique things you notice about this prize? What about other notable prizes that you don’t think are getting enough publicity in DC? Expect future jennovation postings that will be co-authored by Georgina as I monitor and share the MIT team’s progress on this year’s clean energy prize. As always, please feel free to reach out to me on twitter at @jenngustetic at any time during this series to continue to conversation.


(Note: Originally posted on the Phase One Consulting Group, Government Transformation Blog for a special featured Govloop series when I was an employee there. www.phaseonecg.com/blog)