By Denys Resnick, Chief Growth Officer, NineSigma

Pristine sandy beaches on a remote Pacific island: reality or fantasy?

Current projections are that if nothing changes, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. Why is this? The demand for plastics continues to grow yet most plastics are used only once before being discarded, often ending up polluting our planet’s oceans and beaches. This linear ‘take-make-dispose’ plastics system is our current reality and poses a significant threat to the environment. Through an innovation prize competition, for-profit companies, non-profit organizations, innovators and scientists around the world can join together to drive disruptive innovation that fundamentally transforms this system.

Corporations like Unilever, Danone, and Veolia are global market makers who recognize that producing a well-loved shampoo brandor a novel snack food is only part of their mandate. These companies are also committed to the double bottom line which measures fiscal performance by traditional P&L metrics plus performance in terms of positive social impact. An innovation prize competition is the vehicle that embraces both of these objectives.

Here are three key considerations when deciding whether a mission-driven innovation challenge is right for your organization.

Can We Articulate the Technology Need Effectively?

Consider the issues that are vexing your industry today and envision the win-win solution that would positively benefit both your company and society. Envision your organization in the driver’s seat as it proactively distributes a well-articulated technology need that can be addressed through a collaborative effort amongst innovators. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation envisions a circular plastics systems that keeps plastics in the economy and out of oceans – and off the beaches. In their innovation prize competition they focused on the source of the problem – waste. They determined that around 13% of today’s packaging, such as snack food packets and shampoo sachets is made of layers of different materials fused together. This multi-layer construction provides a vital function for the product but makes the packaging difficult to recycle. In their innovation challenge, they asked innovators across technical disciplines and industries to fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics.

Will We Partner or Go it Alone?

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation anchors the vision for their Circular MaterialsChallenge but because they have no market influence, they benefit from commercial partners like Amcor, CocaCola, Danone, Mars, Novamont, Pepsico,Unileverand Veolia. Any one of these companies could lead a challenge of this magnitude, but their message is even more impactful when they join together on a pre-competitive issue. If you can inspire innovators to propose breakthrough solutions, use your market muscle to sponsor an innovation challenge on your own, like GE did with their GHG Ecomagination Innovation Challenge. Often collaboration between commercial and non-profit co-sponsors reinforces the global and societal significance of the problem, elevating it above individual financial interests. When the NFL, GE, and UnderArmour sponsored the HeadHealth Challenge to improve the diagnosis and prognosis of mild traumatic brain injury, their call-to-action was truly inspirational because of their combined efforts.

How Much Prize Money Do We Need?

This is the question most frequently asked when a company is exploring sponsoring an innovation prize competition. “Do I need to offer millions of dollars to be successful?” During the design stage, we flip that question around and ask, “What do you want to accomplish?” and develop a prize strategy that achieves the sponsor’s goals. Compelling prize strategies ensure that winners can achieve the expectations set out by the challenge. In the Circular Materials Challenge, the goal was to identify multiple technology approaches that could be nurtured toward commercialization. Five winners each will receive $200,000 and more importantly, they participate in The New Plastics Economy Innovation Accelerator, a 12-month program specifically designed to advance their innovation. With tailored mentorship by industry experts, and access to labs for testing of viability and scalability, the winners receive the guidance and support to accelerate development of their promising solutions. Whereas a single million dollar award may acknowledge accomplishment of a stellar approach by the winner, this holistic, multi-winner prize strategy nurtures a portfolio of potential successes with both seed funding and longer-term commercialization support.

A successful innovation prize competition requires the vision to imagine fundamental change that can benefit business and society. Visionary leaders recognize that their companies can lead this change, engage others around their mission, and collaborate to build a new reality for the future.

About the Author
Denys Resnick is responsible for incubating and launching NineSigma’s new markets, products and services, and leads NineSigma’s Grand Challenge Team. She works with corporate, government and non-profit clients to identify their evolving innovation needs and collaborates with NineSigma’s operations, sales and marketing teams to develop the initiatives that make NineSigma the global innovation leader. Before joining NineSigma in 2008, Resnick was President of TradeQuest, Inc., an international strategy consulting firm. She brings over 20 years of manufacturing and business development experience from international companies. Resnick earned an MBA in International Business and Finance from New York University, and a BA in International Relations from Tufts University.

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