Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Outsourcing innovation

The NY Times reports that some companies outsource problem-solving on the Internet:
Dwayne Spradlin, president and chief executive of InnoCentive, said in an interview that the company had solved 250 challenges, for prizes typically in the $10,000 to $25,000 range. According to the Web site (, the achievements include a compound for skin tanning, a method of preventing snack chip breakage and a mini-extruder in brick-making.
Apparently, the website is gaining traction among non-profit groups eager to solve global problems.

Solution outsourcing goes back to "the work of John Harrison, the 18th-century clockmaker who, in response to a prize offered by the British Parliament, solved the problem of determining longitude at sea by inventing a clock that would keep good time even in heavy weather." In a variation of the approach, Senator John McCain "has proposed that the government offer $300 million to whoever invents a battery compact enough, powerful enough and cheap enough to replace fossil fuels."

Of course, more often than not the real challenge is identifying the right problem to solve in the first place.


  1. I agree with your thought that identifying a real problem is the key - but I don't think it's hard to argue that $300 million is a really cheap price for access to such a battery.

  2. The other day I read somewhere that some futuristic cars do not even need good batteries. One example was a solar-powered car that goes 60KM/H.

    Before I came across this example I would have assumed -- just like McCain -- that a better battery is the most important thing.

    That's not to trash McCain's idea entirely. At least that proposal is not nearly so annoying as Obama's plan to have the government fund biofuel production.

    Generally speaking, I think government should not be in the technology innovation business. Rather, I think government's job is to make sure pollution costs are reflected in the price of a product. If government simply made sure everyone paid the full price for the polluting technology -- including externalities (the cost to society of coping with the pollution) -- this would spur tremendous investment and hold the potential to lead to more revolutionary innovations.


Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.