Competing for Real

Article excerpt

Contests that spur innovation should be encouraged.

CHALLENGES AND CONTESTS are familiar to engineering students, many of whom have engaged in such activities as egg drop competitions and concrete canoe races. The prize is seldom more than a trophy and bragging rights, but the lessons learned can be invaluable.

Increasingly, real-world engineering challenges and contests with substantial monetary prizes are being promoted as means of encouraging the development of desirable new technologies, such as lightweight batteries, efficient solar cells, and innovative spacecraft.

The entrants and competitors might as easily be teams from large corporations and small-business ventures as from universities and colleges. The sponsors of the competitons often want to open them up to all comers in the hopes of tapping new sources of innovation and nontraditional. out-of-thebox thinking.

The idea of a technology prize is not new, of course. In the 18th century, the British government offered 520,000 for a method for determining longitude at sea. In the early 20th century, the $25,000 Orteig Prize motivated early aviators to attempt a nonstop flight between New York and Paris, the feat that Charles Lindbergh accomplished in 1927.

It is not only fame and fortune that attract competitors. The winning team will have an enormous advantage in the marketplace opened up by a new technology. Even if the prize money does not equal the winner's research and development expenditure, a government-sponsored competition can have the allure of massive purchasing contracts to the proven technology leader.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, when gasoline was approaching $5 a gallon in California, candidate John McCain proposed a $300 million prize for a battery pack that would enable cars equipped with it to outperform existing hybrid and electric vehicles. McCain reminded potential voters that the prize would cost taxpayers only $1 per capita and could produce a giant step in the direction of energy independence.

The proposal may have been suggested by an idea for an as-then-unfunded Superbattery Prize valued at $1 billion or the earlier announcement of a Pentagon-sponsored competition known as the Wearable Power Prize. …