Scientists offer tips on averting innovation prize failure

Glasses innovation prise.jpg
Copyright: Mads Nissen / Panos

Speed read

  • Poorly designed innovation prizes fail to deliver big development impacts
  • A guide for funders outlines four steps to ensure successful prizes
  • One vital question is whether a prize is the best way to solve a problem

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A set of four research papers outline how development funders can avoid their innovation prizes from flopping.

The papers, published on 8 May, show how poorly designed innovation prizes have failed to deliver big development impacts. One paper, a guide to improving innovation prizes in developing nations, notes that some prizes fail to lead to any tangible benefits because the beneficiaries are unable to use the innovation. 

The guide outlines four steps to running a prize in an attempt to help development funders consider whether offering a prize is the best way to solve a problem (see box).

  1. Four steps to planning innovation prizes 

  2. Identify the problem.
    Work out the precise problem to be solved based on, for example, the desired development outcome and available resources, and assess whether any form of intervention is appropriate.
  3. Run a preliminary check.
    Are there similarities between the problem and the ways in which innovation prizes can support innovation?
  4. Develop a ‘theory of change’.
    Think through exactly how the prize would lead to a development outcome in this context. For example, would the local government support uptake of the innovation? Would local beneficiaries be able to use it?
  5. Appraise the plan.
    Do the risks outweigh the benefits for both the prize funder and competing innovators?

The other three papers present research from the Ideas to Impact project, run by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. The project plans to launch three innovation prizes this year — on climate change adaptation, energy access and water and sanitation — and the papers present their background consultations.

Prizes that spur innovation on development problems are increasingly in vogue. Between 1970 and 2009, the number of such prizes worth more than US$100,000 has increased 15-fold — with a rapid acceleration during the mid-2000s — according to a McKinsey report.

But Bryony Everett, a senior technical director at development consultancy IMC Worldwide and leader of the Ideas to Impact team, says that some of the prizes in this growing tide may have been inadequately thought through.

“You have this prize that produces this supposedly great technology, like Bill Gates reinventing the toilet for example,” she says. “But the thing is: so what? It doesn’t actually change the world if it’s not scalable.”

Amira Bliss has helped run innovation prizes as part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s innovation team. She agrees that funders can be enthusiastic about prizes without considering whether they are the best solution to a problem.

“Everyone is saying: ‘We need to do a prize’,” she says. “But the truth is a prize is not the best hammer to crack every nut.”

The Ideas to Impact guide picks out a challenge run by US crowdsourcing firm InnoCentive, for solar powered product manufacturer SunNight Solar, as a particular example. This prize yielded a US$15 solar-powered flashlight with a 20-year lifetime — but it failed to have much impact because the people it was aimed at were unable to get financial credit.

Bliss says she was thinking about putting together a guide on innovation prizes herself when she became aware of the papers. She says they are useful for helping funders decide whether to use the prize model in given situations.

Some funders are too quick to reach for the prize option, Bliss says, partly because they are keen to be seen as risk-takers and partly because of a lack of knowledge about other ways to generate innovations.

“We’ve seen our peers express interest in different methods or tools to generate innovations,” she says. “So we think there’s an appetite for building knowledge about the range of tools out there.”

Innovation prize overuse is less of a problem at the regional level, says Phet Sayo, a senior programme officer in India with Canada’s International Development Research Centre, because there is less competition. 

Sayo works on the Information Society Innovation Fund, which issues prizes to recognise innovation at more local levels. He says regional prizes can be inexpensive — a few thousand British pounds — and complement other types of innovation-driving activity, such as scholarships for researchers to work on development problems.

In addition, Sayo says, thinking through innovation prizes precisely is less of a necessity for prizes covering areas that receive less attention from wealthy global foundations. Such prizes will go at least some way towards drawing attention to neglected fields, even if they don’t directly stimulate new innovations.

“It’s worth the risk if you’re the only one doing it,” he says.
SciDev.Net receives funding from the UK Department for International Development.


John Ward and Charlie Dixon Innovation prizes: a guide for use in a developing country context (Ideas to Impact, 8 May 2015)
Mipsie Marshall and Lars Otto Naess A role for innovation prizes to support adaptation to climate change? (Ideas to Impact, 8 May 2015)
Simon Collings Stimulating solutions to energy access through the use of innovation prizes (Ideas to Impact, 8 May 2015)
 Sophie Trémolet Can innovation prizes help address water and sanitation challenges? (Ideas to Impact, 8 May 2015)
“And the winner is …” Capturing the promise of philanthropic prizes (McKinsey, July 2009)