Crowdsourcing Solutions: Embracing Open Source Innovation

By Gene Quinn
September 13, 2011

The search for innovative ideas has never been easy, but the advent of crowdsourcing technologies and powerful players willing to embrace new methodologies seems to be paying dividends.  Rather than rely on traditional innovation that comes from one individual or a small group of individuals or those working for or with a single entity or as part of a joint venture, crowdsourcing technologies take problems to millions of people and capture the most creative solutions, allowing them to be pursued and developed.  “Opening up the conversation and searching for solutions among a broad, but qualified, audience has allowed us to find unique, innovative ideas in a short period of time,” said Matthew Bishop, U.S. business editor and New York bureau chief for The Economist.

Indeed, just earlier today The Economist and InnoCentive, Inc. announced the winner of the Human Potential Index Challenge. Corrine Le Buhan, an IP and technology strategy consultant and valuation analyst from Lausanne, Switzerland, has won the Challenge, which was looking for new and creative metrics or indices that draw attention to an important societal trend.  Le Buhan’s solution proposed measurement of creativity and knowledge sharing via a “creative sharing” impact, described as the number of people reached by an original creative work as the creative work is spread, and possibly enriched, through further peer-to-peer interaction. This measurement could be used to compare various creative works and their impact on human development.

InnoCentive is an open innovation and crowdsourcing pioneer that enables organizations to solve their key problems by connecting them to diverse community of problem solvers.  InnoCentive essentially has a community of millions of people who are connected through a cloud-based technology platform.  When a client of InnoCentive has a problem they want solved they engage InnoCentive to pursue a challenge driven solution.  The hope is that through placing out a call for a solution the community will fundamentally transform the economics of innovation and R&D.  InnoCentive’s platform provides the rapid solution delivery and the development that makes the process possible.

Challenge Driven Innovation (CDI) is an innovation framework that accelerates traditional innovation outcomes by leveraging open innovation and crowdsourcing, helping organizations develop and implement actionable solutions to their key problems.  The InnoCentive website offers the following example:

A Challenge, broken down to the simplest level, can often be solved. For instance, what if you want to increase your fried snacks sales by reducing fat content? Perhaps the real problem is that low fat snacks do not taste good. The Challenge could get to the root of that problem by asking Solvers to propose a delicious non-fat food additive.

Those in the patent community familiar with the business model of Article One Partners will likely notice some similarities.  Article One Partners offers a community of well over 1 million users in a similar crowdsourcing model.  If you are looking for prior art to use against a patent, or perhaps to do due diligence in the situation where you are considering buying a patent or perhaps because your firm is considering entering into a contingency litigation agreement to pursue infringement, you can leverage the knowledge of the Article One community to find out what prior art is out there.  You define what you are looking for and Article One puts out the call for prior art and information.

As is the case with Article One Partners, the InnoCentive model pays rewards to those who prevail in the search for a solution to the problem identified in the challenge.  For example, the challenge won by Le Buhan will net her $10,000, and she will present her winning solution at The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Human Potential Event later this week.

The amount of the reward is not the driving factor in participating in the open innovation platform according to several previous Challenge winners.  “The reward was important, but it certainly was not a major incentive as the monetary value was marginal, ” said Brendan Graham, winner of “Active Electromagnetic Interference Cancellation” Challenge. “It was just the idea of winning and feeling worthwhile and useful; that my knowledge base had not been acquired in vain.”

Similarly, financial reward was not the driving force for patent attorney David Bradin, winner of “Synthesis to 1,2,3,4-butanetetracarboxylic acid” Challenge. “I have listed my award in my firm biography,” said Bradin, who sees his winning of the award as providing tremendous visibility and notoreity. “I’ve been interviewed by several magazines and periodicals, including Forbes, Business Week, Business 2.0, MIT Technology Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. I’ve been interviewed on NPR, and was invited to give a lecture on crowdsourcing at IMD, a business school in Lausanne, Switzerland.” Bradin continued: “Clients of mine have commented on hearing me on NPR, and reading about me in some of the publications. It gives me some cache as a patent attorney, because it shows that I have the requisite technical background to understand my clients’ inventions.”

The 2011 Human Potential Challenge marks the one-year anniversary of the partnership between The Economist and InnoCentive; the first Human Potential Challenge was solved in September 2010. In the year since the formation of the partnership, several Challenge solutions have already progressed toward implementation. Andrew Deonarine, developer of the EduCell project and winner of the 2010 Human Potential Challenge, has seen his solution developed on a number of Nokia phone models. Deonarine, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is an assistant instructor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, developed a system called “Phonecasting” which distributes interactive educational lessons by inexpensive cellular phones, using software called “EduCell.” EduCell is currently being targeted at Nokia’s cost-effective S40 platform, which is used by millions of people. The first pilot project for EduCell is expected to be running before year end.

Mario Rosato’s solution to the Capture of Atmospheric Carbon to Address Global Warming Challenge made him the winner of the Reverse Climate Change Challenge. In this Climate Change Challenge the Economist sought insights into the topic of the scalable and economical capture of atmospheric carbon. The objective was to identify promising new means of addressing the problem of climate change and identify ideas worthy of recognition, publicity, and possibly, investment. Rosato’s solution has been profiled in several Spanish publications and through this exposure resulted in an invitation to present his solution to an Italian bank and several venture capital firms. Rosato is now working with an Italian investor with the goal of launching a demo project in Northern Italy and presenting the project to the Italian Senate.

“The Economist and InnoCentive Challenges have succeeded far beyond our expectations,” said Matthew Bishop, U.S. business editor and New York bureau chief for The Economist.

What makes open source perfect for innovation, when everyone buys into the effort to actually innovate (i.e., create something new and nonobvious) is that it is cooperative.  Open source is perfect for a joint venture scenario, whether between Academia and the private sector or between and among companies in the private sector who seek to raise the industry to a certain level and perhaps tackle seemingly insurmountable technical problems.

The mainstreaming of open innovation through crowdsourcing technologies should lead to a whole new age of innovation, problems to seemingly insurmountable problems and the formation of new companies and new industries that should lead to job growth.  The fact that The Economist is involved is important because the respected publication can bridge the gap between the “open means free” community and the business realities that drive economic realities.  Challenges are not hostile to intellectual property rights and envision the need for investment banks and venture capitalists to invest.

It seems that The Economist Challenge series can play an important role in advancing innovation in key areas while still having solutions be attractive enough to the business community to actually be pursued on a widescale basis.  After all, the best pro-planet environmental solutions are useless unless they actually can be implemented.  Solving climate change but the solution not being economical results in no deployment, which is hardly a better outcome for the planet and its inhabitants.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and President & CEO ofIPWatchdog, Inc.. Gene founded IPWatchdog.com in 1999. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and Of Counsel to the law firm of Berenato & White, LLC. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

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There are currently 1 Comment comments.

  1. Mark Nowotarski September 14, 2011 10:37 am

    Just to clarify, “crowd source” and “open source” are two very different ideas. In crowd source, a problem (e.g. find the prior art) is opened up to a large number of people in hopes of finding a few knowledgeable people who can contribute to a solution. In “open source”, a solution is made public . Anyone is allowed to copy the solution provided they to make an improvement to the solution similarly available to the public.

    At least that’s how I understand it.