Getting the prize purse right in tech contests is a challenge all its own


A major upside for agencies is competitors often invest more in solutions than the government pays out.

What’s the toughest part about putting together a government-sponsored prize competition to develop new and innovative technologies?

It’s not finding problems in need of a solution or drawing in competitors, according to Gregory Downing, executive director for innovation at the Health and Human Services Department.

The toughest part is determining how much the prize purse should be, Downing said in a presentation Friday before the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. HHS has launched or cooperated in more than a dozen challenges since 2010.

In a conventional government solicitation, an agency precisely details the technology it is seeking and then determines which vendor offered the best combination of expertise, assets and low price. The agency wouldn’t have to worry about the cost itself until plenty of offers were on the table.

In a prize competition, however, an agency must decide how much to spend as it’s putting together the specifications for the technology it’s seeking.

One major upside of such challenges is the group offering the prize, whether it’s a government agency, a foundation or a private company, often can count on competitors investing more money than the offeror is actually paying out, said Cristin Dorgelo, assistant director for grand challenges in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. That usually leads to more new technology and innovative ideas than a traditional solicitation.

NASA’s Green Flight Challenge, which was sponsored by Google and aimed at developing more fuel-efficient aircrafts, doled out $1.65 million to prize winners, Dorgelo said, but the 14 competing teams together invested $6 million.

Competitors also typically take various approaches to a technical or scientific problem, allowing the offering agency to cheaply determine which ones work best, Dorgelo said. They can sometimes point out new ideas entirely, she said.

“One researcher at an agency I won’t name put up a competition and said in the six weeks [during which competitors submitted] ideas to try to solve the problem he put forward, he saw all the approaches that he had considered in his 30 years of research on that problem,” she said. “So imagine having gotten that landscape survey at the beginning of those 30 years, where he could have gone.”

Since its launch two years ago, the government’s competition platform has hosted 200 competitions from 45 departments and agencies that have drawn in 16,000 “citizen solvers,” according to a White House blog post.

Agencies were given greater authority to spend money on prize competitions by the 2010 America Competes Act. Some agencies, including NASA, began offering challenges long before came online through external sites such as Innocentive.

A study of private sector prize competitions showed that winners typically were from a different discipline than those who would have tackled the problem through a conventional contract, Karim Lakhani, a Harvard Business School professor and expert in prize competitions told PCAST members. The study also showed that women, if they enter competitions, are more likely to win than men, he said.

(Image via Chatchawan/