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Science  28 Mar 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5871, pp. 1750-1752
DOI: 10.1126/science.319.5871.1750

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By offering prizes on behalf of clients seeking scientific and engineering help, an Internet company called InnoCentive has gathered a virtual work force of 135,000 problem-solvers from around the world.

By offering on behalf of clients seeking scientific and engineering help, an Internet company called InnoCentive has gathered a virtual work force of 135,000 problem-solvers from around the world


Until 15 months ago, Harvey Arbesman knew relatively little about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the fatal neuromuscular disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. That would quickly change for the practicing dermatologist and professor of clinical epidemiology at the University at Buffalo in New York. While reading about how the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and others benefit from a concept called crowd-sourcing, Arbesman was drawn to a company named InnoCentive and a biomedical contest it had posted on the Internet.

Crowd-sourcing typically involves allowing a mass of people to help a company or group accomplish its goals; Wikipedia, for example, allows people to write, correct, and update its encyclopedia entries. InnoCentive exploits that strategy in the scientific realm, posting technical and theoretical challenges online and offering awards ranging from $5000 to $1 million for a solution. What caught Arbesman's eye was a set of challenges run on behalf of an ALS patient group called Prize4Life, including a $1 million prize for discovering a validated biomarker that tracks the progression of the disease, and smaller awards for promising ideas.

Practicing what he preaches—Arbesman and his wife have a company devoted to creative problem-solving in medicine—Arbesman began reading everything he could find on ALS. He soon came across the little-studied observation that ALS patients, when immobilized during the end stage of their disease, rarely develop bedsores, even though similarly paralyzed people, such as stroke victims, almost always do. “Is there a clue there?” wondered Arbesman.

The hunt for ALS biomarkers has concentrated on molecules in blood, urine, and cerebrospinal fluid—so far without success. But the dermatologist ultimately submitted a proposal for monitoring skin changes in ALS patients. Impressed, Prize4Life awarded him a $15,000 prize for a ALS biomarker concept. “It's a fascinating idea,” says Hiroshi Mitsumoto, director of the ALS center at Columbia University, who is now working with Arbesman to test the skin of about 40 to 50 people with the condition.

Such stories provide the public relations pitch for InnoCentive's radical approach to scientific problem solving. With a success rate greater than 35% for the 600-plus challenges the company has posted since 2001, on topics such as synthesizing a tuberculosis drug and building bricks cheaply in developing countries, InnoCentive CEO and President Dwayne Spradlin boasts that his company now has more than 135,000 “solvers” worldwide addressing his clients' intractable problems. “The prize-based model can be better, faster, cheaper” than traditional inhouse research efforts, he says.

InnoCentive has drawn a diverse crowd of scientists and engineers into its virtual work force. About 40% of those who register to see challenge summaries have Ph.D.s. Karim Lakhani of Harvard Business School in Boston, who was given access to InnoCentive's data on challenges from 2001 to 2004 and also surveyed about 350 of its solvers, has found that curiosity and pride motivate them as much as the prize money. He suggests that the company's crowd-sourcing approach reflects a “broader trend of democratization of science.” As the United States and Europe churn out Ph.D.s, and countries such as China and India dramatically expand their scientific capabilities, more and more people with science training exist outside the traditionally elite research universities. “Many people have the skills and talents to solve science problems,” says Lakhani.

Success from failure

The drug company probably doesn't like to think of it this way, but Eli Lilly's research and development failures gave birth to InnoCentive. Frustrated that a massive scientific staff couldn't solve certain problems in drug synthesis or development, Eli Lilly officials took a chance and spun off InnoCentive in 2001. It began posting challenges from Eli Lilly and other drug companies, though InnoCentive allows the companies seeking help to remain anonymous if they wish. Spradlin notes that some companies were initially hesitant to reveal problems or tip off competitors, but solvers interested in the full technical demands must sign a confidentiality agreement.

Although some contests ask for an actual product—an intermediate chemical in a drug-synthesis effort or a particular mutant yeast strain, for example—many others are more theoretical. Take a drug company seeking new ideas for how to treat obesity. The InnoCentive client determines if an award should be given for any submitted solution, and InnoCentive then helps it obtain the intellectual-property (IP) rights to the idea from the solver in return for the prize money. InnoCentive brags that it has negotiated IP transfer for more than 99% of solutions recognized by its clients.

InnoCentive, originally owned and subsidized by Eli Lilly, has now raised more than $9 million in venture capital as an independent company. InnoCentive, which basically maintains a Web site, makes money by charging clients annual fees of up to $100,000 to post challenges and manage the exchange that follows. InnoCentive also earns a percentage of the prize money, sometimes equal to the award itself, if a company agrees that a solver has found an answer. Spradlin says the company has so far awarded about $2.6 million for 200-plus solutions, most coming within 2 to 4 months of a challenge being posted.

InnoCentive soon caught the attention of the business world, with several publications dubbing it the eBay of innovation. Major clients from the pharmaceutical, materials, and chemistry industries have come onboard. The publicity has fueled rapid growth: 50 to 100 new solvers register every day, says Spradlin. They hail from 175 countries and, aside from traditional science Ph.D.s, include technicians, students, and engineers.

More than 50% of registered solvers now come from Russia, India, and China. InnoCentive has even signed agreements with the Chinese and Russian national science academies; instead of preventing their scientists from answering challenges, these organizations now promote InnoCentive. As motivation for Russian universities, for example, a solver's academic department can get 10% of any award, says Spradlin.

Doing good

Recently, InnoCentive has begun to branch out from its pharmaceutical heritage, offering nonprofit organizations and others a platform. Take Prize4Life, which a wealthy ALS patient founded in 2006 to accelerate ALS drug discovery. Given the small number of people affected, drug companies ignore the disease, in part because the lack of a good biomarker makes evaluating treatments a challenge, says Nicole Szlezak of Prize4Life. In the hope that prizes could serve as a “lighthouse” that illuminates new research and ideas, the ALS group put up its $1 million offer and smaller awards through InnoCentive. It now plans to use the company for more prizes, including a $2.5 million prize for an ALS treatment that works in mice (Science, 8 February, p. 713).


The Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI), established by Congress after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, also signed up with InnoCentive, seeking new ideas for cleaning up oil spills in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters. The institute has posted several challenges and recently awarded $20,000 for an idea for promoting the flow of oil; cleanup crews store oil from spills in floating barges but often have trouble emptying the near-frozen liquid. “We had a selection of very good ideas to choose from. We ended up with one we were very satisfied with,” notes Scott Pegau of OSRI in a promotional video InnoCentive has posted in an online appeal for new solvers on the video site YouTube. “If it was easily solved by the oil industry, it would have been solved.”

The solver in this case was John Davis, a U.S. consultant who holds a master's degree in chemistry. Although he had no background in the oil industry, Davis had experience pouring concrete. He suggested inserting into the barges pneumatic vibrators that the concrete industry uses to keep its material flowing. “I love trying to solve problems,” gushes Davis on his own YouTube video. The chemist hopes to visit OSRI in Alaska and says he will use some of his prize money to finance environmental cleanup and soil remediation research.

Responses to other challenges have been mixed, says Pegau, and even Davis's award-winning idea has yet to be turned into an actual solution. Some solvers have no concept of the difficulty of working in Alaska, Pegau says. But he's largely sold on InnoCentive, even if others remain cautious about its unusual approach. “We are learning the types of questions that may make a good challenge,” he says. “Other organizations have been waiting to see how our experience is going.”

One big name hasn't been so hesitant. In December 2006, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York City agreed to a partnership with InnoCentive in which it pays the company to run challenges for various groups seeking innovations for poor and vulnerable people. Tom Kruer, a Kentucky-based mechanical engineer, has won two such challenges. A $15,000 prize, offered by Rural Innovations Network (RIN) in Chennai, India, called for a way to quickly change a spice mixer from grinding dry grains to processing chili, coriander, and other spices with high moisture content. Attracted by the philanthropic nature of the challenge, Kruer in about 25 hours designed an interchangeable blade apparatus that should be low-cost and easy to use in developing countries.

As a consultant, Kruer estimates he might have charged a client $50,000 for the same project. RIN “got a solution for $15,000 and employed 260 solvers. I think that's ground-breaking,” he says. Kruer spent much more time designing a new device for making clay bricks; that earned him $20,000 from a group called GlobalGiving in Washington, D.C.


InnoCentive solvers frequently comment that their solutions were trivial or obvious, which suggests that having the right background is key to addressing a client's “unsolvable” problems. Laurie Parker, a postdoc in an organic synthesis lab at the University of Chicago in Illinois, says it recently took her less than a day to write a submission for an InnoCentive client seeking new ways to make libraries of polypeptides. The challenge was a “perfect fit” for her background—and her proposal won a $5000 prize.

Spradlin says that InnoCentive essentially expands the knowledge base of its clients, often resulting in solutions already devised in other fields or countries being applied to a new problem. He recounts that a pharmaceutical company was stuck scaling up production of a key molecule. Within 3 weeks of posting the challenge, a Russian protein crystallographer had pointed the company to a solution already in the public domain—and thus free of any IP restrictions. “There's real breakthrough science that comes from having people around the world working on a problem,” says Spradlin.

Christian Hedberg, a chemical biology postdoc at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Germany, had a similarly easy time making some money. The pharma giant Johnson & Johnson was developing a new tuberculosis drug but needed a better way of producing a supply that was purely one of the two stereoisomers. “When I saw the challenge, I just smiled, because I directly knew how to solve it. It took me three evenings to write it up. … I'm just used to fight[ing] with delicate chemical problems on a daily basis,” says Hedberg, who also does some pharmaceutical consulting for companies.

Hedberg says his past consideration of similar issues for other molecules meant that the “the solution was already there. … It's nice to see that my extensive reading of the chemical literature over 10 years finally pays off in terms of real applications and not only academic publications.”

Hedberg cannot discuss his solution, as he transferred IP rights to the company. Still, he admits being surprised to see such a challenge posted by InnoCentive. “I think it's strange that a major pharma company cannot solve this kind of problem,” he says.

Shake it up.

A $20,000 award went to an idea for using pneumatic vibrators to help get near-frozen oil out of cleanup barges.


Prized research

Although prize incentives for research and technological needs are enjoying a resurgence (Science, 8 February, p. 713), there's been little research on the topic. In that regard, InnoCentive, which has kept detailed records about every challenge, is a gold mine. A self-confessed “data-miner,” Spradlin has noted many patterns, such as that Chinese and other Asian solvers register to look at a lot of different challenges but are much more reluctant to submit answers than, say, Russian colleagues.

For his research, Lakhani joined his Harvard colleague Lars Bo Jeppesen and two InnoCentive scientists to sift through the company's data on 166 challenges listed by 26 companies. They also conducted an online survey of solvers, both those who had winning proposals and those who did not. All in all, about 80,000 scientists from 150 countries reviewed those challenges, and 49 were solved, a rate that Lakhani considers impressive given that most of the problems stumped well-funded research and development companies.

Trying to understand why certain problems got solved, Lakhani found that the more diverse the pool of solvers, the greater the odds of a solution. And after surveying winning solvers, his group concluded that the further a challenge was from a person's field of interest, the more likely they were to solve it. Lakhani initially found this puzzling but now says that “you really need to have a different perspective” on a challenge.

The online survey also proposed more than a dozen motivations for tackling an InnoCentive challenge and asked solvers to rate the importance of each. Although prize money was among the top incentives, it wasn't number one: that was the enjoyment of solving a puzzle. “I'm always looking for a challenge to solve. It's part of my nature,” Kruer says. Enhancing one's skills was also a motivation. Parker has examined more than 200 challenges but only submitted an answer twice. “At the very least, I learn something each time,” she says.

Teaming up

InnoCentive has ambitious plans to add new features to its business, such as auctioning solutions to industry or allowing solvers to network and work together. Spradlin notes with amusement that one solver in India has already assembled his own team of scientists and engineers and merely manages the submissions of answers. The company discovered this outsourcing, which is perfectly legitimate, because the Indian solver was so much more prolific than anyone else.

Still, ideas are cheap. InnoCentive's clients and solvers admit that transforming them into actual solutions isn't necessarily easy. Since Prize4Life awarded him the $15,000, Arbesman has largely been left on his own to test the skin biomarker concept—and he has a November 2008 deadline to meet if he wants to earn the $1 million prize for a validated biomarker. A dermatologist colleague at Columbia University put Arbesman in contact with the ALS center there, which led to the pilot project, but Mitsumoto notes that larger studies will require much more money.

Although InnoCentive cannot yet claim a blockbuster discovery such as an ALS biomarker or treatment, many feel that the company's approach does have a role to play in tapping the global talent pool of scientists and engineers. “This is not the universal solver for all science problems, but it should be in the portfolio of approaches,” says Lakhani.

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