Monday, September 20, 2010

The Candle Problem

I have a riddle for you!

On a table, there’s a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks. But here’s the problem: no one knows how to fix the candle to the wall without the wax dripping onto the table below.

Representatives of the candle, match, and tack industries have poured millions of dollars into studies in order to crack the case. A $20 million effort attempted to jam tacks through the candle to attach it to the wall. A $30 million study looked into the possibility of melting the wax on one side of the candle to make it stick to the wall. Neither idea worked.

Desperate to find a solution, the Big 3 decided on a novel approach—they issued a public challenge and promised a large sum of cash to whoever could end their candle dilemma once and for all.

An out-of-the-box thinker came to the rescue. “Why not, you know, take the tacks out of the box, and use that?”


But is that how it works in real life? Dan Pink, a career analyst and former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, contends problem-solving is slightly more complicated than that.

In his TED speech entitled ‘The Surprising Science of Motivation,’ Pink references a study that shows how individuals that are promised a reward for solving the candle problem actually perform WORSE than their un-rewarded competitors. On the surface, the finding doesn’t really make sense—isn’t money the ultimate motivator in our market-driven society?

(By the way, if you’re not familiar with TED, it’s an incredible series of talks that allow some of the brightest minds in the world to widely share their ideas. Check it out at

There are two reasons why the candle bonuses failed. First, rewards are excellent at narrowing our focus to solve a very specific problem, but they’re not nearly as useful in helping spur broad, creative thinking. Second, a reward must be tied to some intrinsic motivation to be truly effective—unfortunately, most of the study participants didn’t feel any personal desire to keep the table wax-free, they just wanted the cash.

At Prize4Life, we’re not just throwing money at a problem. Our prizes are highly focused on specific outcomes. Find a biomarker to track the progression of the disease and/or add a promising candidate (with a powerful effect on an ALS mouse model) to the drug development pipeline, and you’ll be rewarded. We’ve taken a broad goal—curing ALS—and narrowed the focus to these key challenges that prizes can help meet. By solving these smaller problems, we are opening the floodgates, and industry will pour resources into the search for a cure.

In addition, the people competing for our prizes have a powerful intrinsic motivation. Whether they know someone with ALS or not, helping to find a cure for this horrific disease means becoming part of something important—giving a normal life to thousands upon thousands of people.

The moral of this story: money can’t solve everything. But if used right, it sure can make a difference.

For another inspiring and fascinating discussion on how and why problems should be shared with a more extensive audience of potential ‘solvers,’ watch Ted Andersen, curator of the TED conferences, in his talk entitled ‘Crowd Accelerated Innovation.’

Monday, September 13, 2010 and The French Connection

In the early 19th century, Napoleon, Emperor of the French, faced quite the dilemma. His armies were stretched across the European continent, and there was no easy way to deliver much-needed brie and escargots to the front lines.

Napoleon knew that an army marches on its stomach, and so he offered a cash prize of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large quantities of food. Nicolas Appert, a French candy-maker, began experimenting with a method of preserving food by placing it in glass jars, sealing them with cork, and boiling the jars in water. In 1810, Appert presented his invention to Napoleon and was awarded the 12,000 francs.

As a general rule, the Obama administration tends to avoid any potential association with someone like Napoleon, but even an ardent Francophobe has to admit his idea of using prizes to solve big problems was a good one. And in that spirit, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently announced the launch of, an online platform that solicits the ideas of ‘citizen solvers’ and applies them to a host of national problems. features over 35 challenges posed by more than 15 government agencies. Some of the challenges include:

• The Kids.Gov ‘How Do I Become President?’ Challenge:
This being one of the most frequently asked questions of, a $5,000 prize will be awarded to the creator of the best visual aid that explains the process.

• The NASA Green Flight Challenge:
In order to spark the development of an aircraft that can fly 200 miles in less than two hours using the energy equivalent of less than one gallon gasoline per occupant, NASA is offering a $1.5 million prize.

• The Progressive Automotive X Prize:
Pairing with the eponymous insurance agency, the Department of Energy is offering $10 million to any one who can build a safe, affordable, production-ready vehicle that gets 100 miles to the gallon or greater.

• The Apps4Africa Contest: Our personal favorite at Prize4Life because of its incredibly catchy title format, this challenge offers $15,000 to the designers of open digital tools that can be used to address community challenges such as healthcare, education, and governance in East Africa.

According to Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “These challenges are just a handful of those featured on and just a taste of what’s to come. By making it simple and free to post challenges, will accelerate agency adoption of prizes as a means of spurring innovation.”

Prize4Life is eager to see this platform succeed. Just like our prizes for ALS breakthroughs can act as a tipping point in the search for a cure, so too can and similar efforts act as a tipping point for inducement prizes as a whole. The prize model has an enormous potential to leverage new investment in any number of fields and create solutions to problems that have plagued us for too long.

Nicolas Appert was not a scientist. He couldn't explain why his canning method worked; it would be 50 years before Louis Pasteur discovered why food spoiled. He was not a wealthy man. In fact, the factory that Appert bought with his prize money was destroyed by Allied soldiers when they invaded Paris, and Appert died penniless.

In so many ways, Nicolas Appert was an average man, no more than a footnote in history. But his invention has helped feed the world, saving an untold number of lives. Appert had no grand fortune, no great education, but he did have an idea that would change the course of history.

And all it took was a prize to bring it to light...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cutting-edge ALS Technology

Until medicine proves otherwise, technology IS the cure…

That’s the mantra of the ALS Residence Initiative, a group spearheading the construction of a series of permanent residences specifically designed for individuals living with the fatal neurodegenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The first such residence officially opened in Chelsea on August 13th, and it comes equipped with a technological payload that would make a nuclear submarine commander proud.

Each resident has a computer control panel mounted on his or her wheelchair. Controlling the computer mouse using whatever muscular movement they still possess (their head, eyes, or fingers,) the resident can issue commands that are beamed via infrared transmitters to a series of receivers scattered throughout the center. The commands are then bounced to a master computer that opens doors, turns lights on and off, draws the blinds, takes room service orders, and even operates toilets. The end result is a smart house that provides once unimaginable levels of independence to individuals suffering from neurodegenerative disease.

The center came to life through the work of Barry Berman, CEO of the Chelsea Jewish Foundation, and Steve Saling, a 41-year old former landscape architect who was diagnosed with ALS four years ago. The Chelsea Jewish Foundation operates the Leonard Florence Center for Living, a 100-bed nursing home in Chelsea. In addition to the ALS residence named after Saling, the Leonard Florence Center has also built a residence designed for multiple sclerosis patients.

Asked what he would do if he lost the ability to move his computer mouse using his eyes and head, Saling pointed to technology currently in development that would allow ALS patients to control computers with their brain waves. That technology would be the subject of the keynote speech at the 4th Annual ALS Roundtable that followed the grand opening of the residence.

Prize4Life partnered with the Massachusetts Chapter of the ALS Association to launch the Roundtables. Recognizing that there are many organizations across Massachusetts working to cure ALS, Prize4Life co-led the charge to bring these groups together so that they could share information and best practices and identify opportunities to work together towards a common cause. We are enormously proud of what the Roundtables have yielded, including the opportunity to learn from Dr. Leigh Hochberg the latest developments in the brain wave technology known as ‘BrainGate.’

BrainGate aspires to literally turn thoughts into action. A chip is placed in the brain and records signals that correspond to imagined limb movement. Decoder software and hardware then translate these signals into usable commands for an external device. In Saling’s case, the external device would be a computer mouse that would allow him to ‘think’ the cursor across the screen. But BrainGate’s imagination reaches much farther than that. Scientists hope that the technology can one day be used to control prosthetic limbs, or even coupled with electronic stimulation so that the mind can bypass damaged nerves and move once-paralyzed muscles.

But for the time being, ALS patients like Steve Saling must be content with the simpler joy of turning a light off when they are ready to sleep and merely dream of much more complex joys like walking and talking. Steve’s son, Finn, was born just one month before Steve was diagnosed. When interviewed for an article in the Boston Globe, Steve described his role as a father. “I’m right now watching my brother canoe to shore with Finn in his lap. I wish that could be me.”

While the Leonard Florence Center for Living Steve Saling Residence in Chelsea is a quantum leap forward in technology, it is, sadly, not a cure. It provides independence to be sure, but not the freedom to hold one’s child in one’s arms. To achieve that, we have no alternative but to bring together the minds, money, and breakthroughs needed to eradicate ALS.

That’s where Prize4Life comes in. Prizes have the ability to attract new ideas from new sources. And when those prizes are highly focused on results, are ours are, they can drive breakthroughs that will accelerate progress toward a cure. Awarding prizes in the biomedical field is a new, relatively unproven model. But the old ways simply haven’t gotten the job done.

Learn more about our prizes here.

For more information on the Leonard Florence Center for Living, you can visit

For more information on BrainGate, visit