The pressure to invent, reinvent and improve technologies, products and services has become so fast and furious that traditional development processes and cycles can't cut it.

Open Innovation (OI) has become a proven and well-established method for reducing development times by sourcing solutions from around the globe that already exist, often from completely different industries.

This strategy too, is being reinvented, as companies want to align their brands with “openness” while accelerating product development. The Innovation Contest has emerged as a finely tuned OI option that delivers speed, transparency and ultimately new products that can be brought more quickly into the market.

What is an innovation contest?
The innovation contest enables rapid development of an actionable solution through a prize-based competition. Each contest combines the best practices of a well-crafted technology search with carefully integrated PR elements, catalyzing solution provider response while publicly positioning the sponsor as an organization that is open to working with external innovation partners. Swiftly and tightly managed, the innovation contest drives rapid development of solutions, which can include prototypes that are built to clear specifications through the contest format.

Examples of innovations resulting from these contests include Ford’s AppyParking App that provides a single source of information on all possible parking restrictions in the city of London. This makes life easier for drivers and eases traffic congestion. And, the Federal Trade Commission’s “Nomorobo” that allows incoming calls to route to a second telephone line and disconnect illegal robocalls – before ringing to a live user. To date, the solution has stopped over 4,800,000 robocalls.

How do innovation contests work?
Innovation contests start with a sponsoring organization identifying the innovation need it wants to address. Then key components of the contest are mapped out, including criteria for evaluating responses, a contest timeline, milestone

definitions and a prize strategy. The prize is an important feature of the contest program, as it demonstrates the sponsor’s commitment to finding a solution and reflects the value of that solution.

Innovation contests in action
A typical innovation contest is comprised of two phases and can be run in under six months. Here is an outline of a typical approach when the desired outcome is a prototype.

In preparation for the launch, the sponsor works with an innovation intermediary to create tight specifications for a solution prototype. As materials and technological performance expectations are specified, the innovation company also identifies a community of potential participants based on their known competencies. Then a robust global outreach program begins to invite submissions. All of the information about the contest is generally presented on a website, which serves as a platform for the whole program.

After this first phase, the list of participants is culled to a group of finalists. Those in the running are incented to participate in Phase 2, the prototype development phase, with a fair, commensurate stipend to provide some compensation whether or not their entry prevails. As a result, it’s easier for submitters to treat the assignment as “real work” versus a moonlighting project that may or may not pay off.

Finalists that make it to Phase 2 are given identical “solution kits” that can contain production budgets, technical drawings and materials for building the prototypes. This ensures everyone uses the same materials and the resulting prototypes are of comparable design. Prototypes are submitted by a deadline and judged by a panel of evaluators that can be within or outside the sponsoring organization. The winner is then announced and the prize is awarded.

The GE Printing Production Quest is an example of these processes in action. GE recently challenged participants to use additive manufacturing to produce complex parts with high precision using refractory metals. This capability could transform how components are manufactured for x-ray-based medical imaging systems, simplifying manufacturing and reducing costs, while improving image quality and diagnostic capabilities. The company recently announced three winners from Germany, Belgium and Austria.

Benefits and outcomes
Open Innovation is exciting for solution providers who are eager to get their foot in the door with a large corporation, but worried the deck may be stacked in favor of someone else — or their work will be in vain if the project doesn’t have complete buy-in from the company.

For organizations on a mission to accelerate innovation – innovation contests seed a large field of potential solution providers and reap a large number of viable prototypes or solutions. Less tangible but equally important is the expansion of the sponsoring organization’s qualified solution provider network.

Global innovation firm NineSigma offers a free, downloadable whitepaper that dives deeper into innovation contests: http://ow.ly/ygs3D. Possibilities are endless and winning opportunities for strategic advancement come from places that organizations would never have looked – if not for the innovation contest.

Denys Resnick is executive vice president of NineSigma, which helps organizations find new solutions, knowledge and partners to accelerate the innovation cycle. The leader in creating ‘unexpected connections’ across industries and technical disciplines, NineSigma has produced billions of dollars in value for its clients. The company also helps for-profit and nonprofit organizations address problems of a global magnitude through Grand Challenges. NineSigma’s online community, NineSights®, connects innovators of all sizes with the resources and relationships needed to drive growth. Learn more at www.ninesigma.com or www.ninesights.com, and contact Ms. Resnick at Resnick@ninesigma.com.


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