Magazine article Newsweek International

Ideas Wanted

Magazine article Newsweek International

Ideas Wanted

Article excerpt

Vladimir Belov, a Russian chemist working in Germany, saw an unusual appeal on the Web last year. An anonymous firm was looking for a new way to obtain nitrogen protection for an amino acid. The question posed was similar to his work at KademCustomChem in Gottingen.

"I couldn't stop thinking about it," he says. After eight weekends in his lab, he sent in a solution, and before long a $20,000 check arrived. Belov still has no idea who asked the question, nor even what the substance is for.

Welcome to the new face of industrial research. Scientists have long suspected that solutions to myriad problems were somewhere out there-- scattered among research labs and even kitchens the world over--if only they could figure out how to find them. Two years ago pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly took a stab and formed InnoCentive, an online forum. Soon Dow Chemical and Procter & Gamble joined in. Now eight more companies have posted problems that have stumped their own experts on www.innocentive.com. More than 20,000 "solvers" have offered answers. "What blew our minds is that solutions can come from the most unobvious people," says P&G research manager Larry Huston. One lab had given up on making a certain compound, only to find a chemist in Kazakhstan who had it in a jar in his refrigerator. Says Dow research head Rick Gross: "I think they're on to something."

InnoCentive's Web site is creating a sort of free-agent system of experts around the world. "It's Web-based competitive outsourcing," says Raghunath Mashelkar, director general of India's Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. InnoCentive's six scientists help clients frame questions and screen the solutions. To avoid tipping off rivals, all postings are anonymous. The secrecy also gives solvers an unbiased shot at a little glory. Submissions are geography blind, and job titles are irrelevant. …

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