Getting the Prize Purse Right in Tech Contests is a Challenge All Its Own

September 7, 2012

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.

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