Crowd-Sourcing to Meet Global Challenges

Crowd-Sourcing to Meet Global Challenges

The Academy spurs global innovation through crowd-sourcing and incentives.

The genius of invention has rarely if ever been solipsistic. The bench, the seminar, and the journal have triggered so many collaborative insights—whether in-person or remotely—that traditionalists have been content to simply lobby for ever greater levels of investment in these repositories for inquiry.

But a few visionaries have postulated that too much of this investment merely supports incremental advances. They have sought instead to apply their creativity in a search for novel mechanisms that could increase the odds of innovation. And one of the more promising of these is called "crowd-sourcing."

The underlying philosophy of crowd-sourcing is a passionate optimism that genius resides in people across the planet who do not belong to the various "priesthoods" that capture most of the funding and attention in the elite community of scientists.

A spectacular example of both the power of crowd-sourcing and its disruptional nature could be told by a fellow named Rob McEwen, CEO of the Canadian gold mining group Goldcorp. McEwen found himself presiding over a dying mine: after years of decent yield, the obvious veins were almost played out and the company's geologists had no idea where to look. But, they had amassed 400 megabytes of proprietary survey data (no different in their world than Big Pharma's compound libraries are in ours).

To the horror of his shareholders, McEwen put all of this data up on the Internet. But he attached a challenge to the information: $575,000 to anyone who could figure out a way to turn the data into gold—literally.

People across the globe took up the challenge and the most promising solutions came from two Australian groups, one of which had reportedly never been to a gold mine or even to Canada. Four of the five proposed locations were drilled, opening up huge veins and what had been a dying $100 million company is, today, said to be worth $9 billion. Such is the power of crowd-sourcing.

Another early example is InnoCentive, Inc., an open innovation company that hosts online challenges related to research and development across science, math, business, and nonprofit topic areas. The company, conceptualized by two Eli Lilly and Co. employees in 1998 and launched 3 years later with funding from the company, has already sparked ground-breaking research. A $1 million InnoCentive "Grand Challenge" to find biomarkers for ALS lead to a prize payout in 2011, when Dr. Seward Rutkove was recognized for his creation and validation of a clinically viable biomarker.

More recently, the X-Prize Foundation and the technology company Qualcomm announced that they would be starting a $10 million competition to create a real-life medical tricorder—the Star Trek device that helps doctors diagnose patients and collect data. One sure entrant: the company Scanadu, headquartered at NASA's Ames Research Center, which has been working on a tricorder since January 2011.

A cool $10 million is hard to ignore; indeed, some open innovation challenges are competing with the even the biggest and most-respected scientific funding sources, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, NIH, and NSF in terms of funding dollars. But what they aim to do differently is to circumvent the "usual suspects" (those same researchers who, often predictably, receive grants from multiple funding sources) and to draw upon new and multidisciplinary talent.

Members will recall that Scientists Without Borders (SWB) was created to address that very challenge: to create a platform that would make it possible for entirely new combinations of solvers to come together around entirely new types of challenges. It has achieved a broad user base, with participants from around the world, many of them in developing countries.

But SWB, as originally conceived, lacked the raw power of money to incentivize larger demonstration projects. So Executive Director Shaifali Puri came up with an idea, and partnered with PepsiCo to try it out. SWB formed a partnership with PepsiCo on a $10,000 global maternal malnutrition challenge seeking innovative and scalable solutions for tackling micronutrient deficiency among women of childbearing age in the developing world. In 2011, that challenge reached 300,000 people worldwide and generated ideas from 22 countries. In 2012, the organizations partnered once again to advance the winning solution to triple fortify salt with folic acid to the pilot and implementation phase.

This prize-based, crowd-sourcing model has been so successful that it has spawned many copycat efforts between the Academy and new partner organizations. On page 9 of this issue you will find information on two recent challenges: one centered on sustainable packaging for micronutrient powders and one on biomarkers for Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, the Academy's Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science recently launched its first-ever research prize, to stimulate work at the intersection of nutrition and chronic diseases—an under-funded knowledge gap area that is critical to solving many of our current and future healthcare challenges.

Perceptive members will by now have noticed an underlying theme to this column: the Academy itself is innovating. For 196 years, our greatest strength was to catalyze innovation in two of the three the traditional ways described at the outset: convening and disseminating. But at the cusp of our Third Century, we may be becoming a catalyst of innovation in a truly new and powerful way: by crowd-sourcing and the use of incentives to mobilize unprecedented combinations of experts and institutions to address the complexity of climate change, energy and sustainability, healthcare, and so much more.

Ellis Rubinstein
President & CEO