Monday, September 13, 2010

Challenge.gov 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 Challenge.gov, an online platform that solicits the ideas of ‘citizen solvers’ and applies them to a host of national problems. Challenge.gov 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 Kids.gov, 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 Challenge.gov and just a taste of what’s to come. By making it simple and free to post challenges, Challenge.gov 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 Challenge.gov 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...

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