3 Tips for Government Prize Competitions

Award season is officially here, so it seems appropriate to point out that it isn’t just “the academy” handing out golden trophies anymore. The Federal Government has been throwing its hat in the ring by hosting Prize and Challenge competitions increasingly since the 2010 America COMPETES Act granted all federal agencies the authority to award prizes. Unlike the Golden Globes, these prizewinners are collecting significant sums of prize money as well as intangible benefits such as access to venture capitalists, investors, customers, testing laboratories, and free publicity. Agencies like NASA and DARPA have been hosting challenges for years, and now over 30 agencies have hosted a prize competition. The General Services Administration (GSA) created www.challenge.gov in 2010 to be a “one stop shop” for agencies wanting to access innovative problem solvers in the private and academic sectors. The platform has hosted over 400 competitions to date that cover a wide spectrum of “problems”, from coding for Congress to desalinization technologies to solar energy.

Prize competitions are an inventive way to access non-traditional innovators in order to solve tough problems. The beauty of prize competitions is that you only pay for winning solutions, thus reducing the risk of paying for a solution that doesn’t end up meeting your needs. Solvers come from all sorts of communities and backgrounds and bring fresh perspectives and ideas to government agencies hoping to make an impact for their stakeholders. Here are 3 things you must consider before launching a prize:

  1. What is the problem you are trying to solve clear? Successful prize competitions rally solvers to crack a clear and compelling problem. Be specific and provide discrete examples of the problem and why you’re spending precious government funds on it!
  2. What does success look like? In order to design an effective prize competition, you need to know what you’re looking for. You don’t need to know how to solve the problem (leave that to your innovative solvers), but you need to know what impact a winning solution will have on your stakeholders.
  3. What’s in it for me? Solvers will be most incentivized by a competition that has more benefits than the prize purse itself. Get to know your solver community, be creative with your incentives, and think about how your prize can be a catalyst for continued innovation.

Once you’ve decided you want to host a prize competition, don’t recreate the wheel. There are many agencies and organizations out there that want you to succeed; learn from them and then get in the game!! Cue the “you’re cut off” acceptance speech music, now.