Design radical breakthroughs through grand challenges

Prize-based public competitions are emerging as a smart way to encourage social innovation and technological development in a way that benefits mankind. An exclusive extract from the book 'Crooked Minds: Creating An Innovative Society' shows us how

Kiran Karnik

Some organizations follow a target-oriented or mission approach to innovation. Thus, one may define an end goal and then set a team (or teams) the task of achieving it. A new or difficult goal is likely to need innovation. An example of this is President John F. Kennedy’s reaction to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, a development that shocked the US, which had fancied itself as the world leader in technology. He announced that the US would put a man on the moon by 1970. This mission, with its specifically defined target (and a deadline) could only be met through numerous innovations in technology and systems.

The idea of stimulating innovation by setting a goal has been adopted by various organizations through prizes for ‘grand challenges’. Amongst the well-known ones is the X Prize. This is a non-profit organization that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage technological development that could benefit mankind. The Board of Trustees includes Elon Musk, James Cameron, Larry Page, Arianna Huffington and Ratan Tata, among others.

The X Prize mission is to bring about ‘radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity’ through incentivized competition. It fosters high-profile competitions that motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all disciplines to develop innovative ideas and technologies that help solve the grand challenges that restrict humanity’s progress.

The first X Prize—the Ansari X Prize—was inspired by the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 prize offered in 1919 by French hotelier Raymond Orteig for the first non-stop flight between New York City and Paris. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh won the prize in a modified single-engine Ryan aircraft called the Spirit of St. Louis. In total, nine teams spent $400,000 in pursuit of the Orteig Prize.

The Orteig Prize, though, was not the first of its kind. Over two centuries before it, in 1714, Britain’s Parliament created a Longitude Prize of £20,000 as reward for finding a way for ships to determine their location within half a degree of longitude.

In 1996, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize foundation, offered a $10-million prize to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a three passenger vehicle a hundred kilometres into space, twice within two weeks. Actually, X Prize did not, at that stage, have enough money for this prize. In 2002, Anousheh Ansari, a newly minted tech entrepreneur (who had dreamt of space flight since her childhood in Iran), and her brother-in-law, Amir, agreed to provide the funds and the prize became known as the Ansari X Prize.7 It motivated twenty-five teams from seven nations to invest more than $100 million in pursuit of the $10 million purse. On 4 October 2004, the Ansari X Prize was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, who successfully completed the contest with their spacecraft, SpaceShipOne.

Amongst other interesting X Prize winners are Elastec/American Marine, which won $1 million in 2011 for recovering oil spilled at sea at a rate three times better than the industry’s previous best (it has already launched a product based on this technology); and Edison 2, awarded $5 million in 2010 for a safe, cheap and easily built car that could do more than a hundred miles per American gallon (about 42 km/litre). The secret lay in an innovation: a novel system of suspension.

The X Prizes are monetary rewards to incentivize three primary goals:

• Attract investment which is based on innovative approaches to difficult problems.

• Create significant results that are real and meaningful. Competitions have measurable goals, and are created to promote adoption of the innovation.

• Cross-national and disciplinary boundaries to encourage teams around the world to invest the intellectual and financial capital required to solve difficult challenges. The idea of these prizes is, to quote Dr Diamandis, to set goals that are ‘audacious but achievable’.

The X Prize Foundation has also launched the Google Lunar X Prize, sponsored by Google. With prizes totalling over $30 million, the challenge calls for privately funded teams to ‘land a robot on the surface of the Moon, travel 500 metres over the lunar surface, and send images and data back to the Earth.’ The first team to do this will receive a prize of US$ 20 million, while the second team to do so will get US$ 5 million.

In November 2013, the X Prize organization announced that several milestone prizes would be awarded to teams for demonstrating key technologies prior to the actual mission. A total of US$ 5.25 million was awarded in 2015 for achieving the following milestones:

• US$ 1 million each to three teams for the Lander System Milestone Prize to demonstrate hardware and software that enables a soft landing on the moon.

• US$ 500,000 each to three teams for the Mobility Subsystem Milestone Prize to demonstrate a mobility system that allows the craft to move 500 metres after landing.

• US$ 250,000 each to three teams for the Imaging Subsystem Milestone Prize for producing ‘Mooncasts’ consisting of high-quality images and video on the lunar surface.

There is only one team from India contesting for the Google Lunar X Prize. This is a group of youngsters—dynamic and technically qualified, but with no experience of space projects—called Team Indus. Their infectious enthusiasm has not only attracted more young engineers to their start-up, but also very experienced experts, many of whom are helping on a pro-bono basis. The competence of the team was recognized and their design validated when they were declared one of the winners of the three milestone prizes of US$ 1 million each. They are now working on the flight model of the moon lander, which they hope to have launched (possibly at the end of 2017) by ISRO.

The approach of defining an objective and encouraging organizations to compete to meet it has been used in the social sector too. An award of US$ 10 million has been announced for the winner of the Qualcomm Tricoder X Prize, inspired by the sci-fi handheld diagnostic device seen in Star Trek. The winner has to create a tool that can diagnose sixteen medical conditions, including anaemia, diabetes, strokes and urinarytract infections, and is able to monitor five vital health signs, including blood pressure, respiratory rate and temperature.

One of the contestants, Cloud DX, has already created a wearable device that captures these vital signs and then uses algorithms to spot potential problems. Another interesting prize is a US$ 15 million one for open-source software that will teach children in poor countries how to read, write and do sums within a period of eighteen months.

Amongst others who have used prizes to spur innovation in the social sector is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Gates Foundation. Its Grand Challenges in Global Health (GCGH) is a research initiative in search of solutions to health problems in the developing world. Fifteen challenges are categorized in groups among seven stated goals plus an eighth group for family health. The disciplines involved include immunology, microbiology, genetics, molecular biology and cellular biology, entomology, agricultural sciences, clinical sciences, epidemiology, population and behavioural sciences, ecology and evolutionary biology.

Bill Gates announced the Grand Challenges in Global Health at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2003. In partnership with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Gates Foundation granted $200 million.

Launched in 2008, Grand Challenges Explorations promotes inventions in global health research. Within three years, the Gates Foundation committed $100 million, and grants had been awarded to 495 researchers from 42 countries.

In 2011, the Gates Foundation launched the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge—a programme created to design toilets that capture and process human waste without piped water, sewer or electrical connections, and transform waste into useful resources, such as energy and water, at an affordable price.

The Reinvent the Toilet Challenge is designed to spur innovation and bring creative thinking to solve the problem of dealing with human waste. By 2015, the Gates Foundation has funded sixteen research institutions across Africa, Asia, Europe and North America as part of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Meanwhile, in 2013, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) under the Ministry of Science and Technology of the Government of India, and the Gates Foundation, in collaboration with India’s Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), launched a call for proposals as part of Grand Challenges India to reinvent the toilet, specifically in the Indian context. The Department of Biotechnology and the Gates Foundation will each invest US$ 1 million to support Indian investigators to drive research, development and production of the ‘next generation toilet’.

Grand Challenges India supports co-funded projects to harness Indian innovation and research, and direct scientific discovery to develop affordable, sustainable solutions that improve health in India and around the world. As part of this partnership, the Achieving Healthy Growth through Agriculture and Nutrition programme was also launched in 2013, and seeks to target the relationship between agriculture, nutrition and health to reduce the high incidence of low birth weight and early stunting among Indian infants.

Apart from the Gates Foundation, the success of X Prize has generated many similar initiatives. The Methuselah Mouse Prize, created in 2003, offers cash to teams that breed longer living rodents, and thus contribute to knowledge about how animals age. In 2004, Bigelow Aerospace offered US$ 50 million to the first American team to create a reusable manned capsule that could visit a space station. Though the prize expired, unclaimed, in 2010, such a capsule has now been built (by SpaceX) and has flown, unmanned, six times.

India’s National Innovation Council (NInC)15 too has sought to use challenge awards to spur innovation in desired areas. The National Innovation Council launched its first challenge through a call for proposals in October 2011 to reduce the drudgery of manual workers. It was an attempt to use scientific and technological capabilities to address problems of difficult manual work. The challenge was to provide decent working conditions for labour, including ideas that would improve the design of implements/tools, processes.

A total of 468 proposals were received of which thirty-three were shortlisted. These were examined by an expert group, which then invited six proposals for a detailed presentation. These proposals were from individuals, a group of students and a faculty team. NInC decided to award all six proposals, which included the design of a display unit for hawkers/street vendors, a cycle for disabled without hands and an innovative design for a rickshaw.

NInC also conceptualized the ‘One MP–One Idea’ annual competition. This sought to leverage the power of India’s people through their elected representatives. The competition aimed to generate and select ideas by galvanizing all constituencies through the members of Parliament. The competition would invite innovative solutions in the areas of education and skills, health, water and sanitation, housing and infrastructure, agriculture, energy, environment, community and social services, etc. Submissions could be made by any individual, team or institution from within a constituency. The idea, proposed by NInC in 2011, was approved by the Lok Sabha but finally was not taken further.

Though not a targeted challenge (and with no award), another interesting initiative supported by NInC was Tod-Fod-Jod (break or take apart, and join). This involved taking apart a device (say a clock) and using the parts to make something else. Done extensively in workshops in schools, it was amazing to see the involvement of the students and the innovative things that they came up with. In 2016, the NITI Aayog announced a grant for setting up five hundred ‘tinkering labs’ in schools.

The government will provide each school a one-time grant of Rs 10 lakh and an equal amount over a period of five years for operational expenses. In addition, support will be provided to academic and non-academic institutions to establish a hundred ‘Atal Incubation Centres’. This is part of the government’s efforts to boost the innovation ecosystem in the country.

The finance minister made an initial allocation of Rs 500 crore in the 2015–16 Budget, as part of the ‘Atal Innovation Mission’ Challenge awards not only promote innovation; in many ways, this concept itself is an innovation. The prize or award might well be an attraction for innovators, but, more importantly, it is often the recognition and the opportunity to focus their work on a specific and defined problem that is the true reward.

(The author is the former President of NASSCOM, and a well-known thought leader and spokesperson of the IT-BPO industry. He is also a distinguished member of Founding Fuel’s Advisory Council)

Buy the book on Amazon

[The above excerpt from ‘Crooked Minds: Creating An Innovative Society’ by Kiran Karnik has been reproduced with permission from Rupa Publications India.]

Stay tuned for…

  1. Kiran Karnik's top recommendations on innovation.
  2. A special podcast around the ideas in his book


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Appsforsys Sys on Jan 20, 2017 7:44 a.m. said

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About the author

Kiran Karnik
Kiran Karnik

Former President, NASSCOM

Kiran Karnik has had such a diverse professional career that it's difficult to box him into a single category. He worked for 20 years at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), launched Discovery Channel and Animal Planet in India and, as president of Nasscom between 2001 and 2008, helped promote India's IT capabilities worldwide. And then there's the consulting assignments he has done for the United Nations, Ford Foundation and the World Health Organisation. But Karnik's toughest assignment came in 2009 when Satyam Technologies's corporate fraud – the biggest in India – stood exposed. The government appointed him as head of a six-member committee to restore the firm's credibility. A self-described "public non-intellectual" and a graduate of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Karnik is currently a member of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. His website is:

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