By Rob Cheng
Noted academic and writer Vivek Wadhwa has never shied away from controversy. He’s taken on hot-button topics of immigration and discrimination in the tech industry, and once called on entrepreneurs to rescue California. Last week, Wadhwa again challenged conventional wisdom by looking past the late-night punchlines about Newt Gingrich’s Moon Base and examining the core of his proposal, which is the role of competition in innovation.
Wadhwa writes in the Washington Post that such competitions are already making space flight more efficient, citing the 26 teams competing for a $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize reward, which is “causing entrepreneurs to develop creative new ways to attain spaceflight at a fraction of the normal cost.” He also points out that the long-standing $25,000 Orteig Prize helped spur innovations in aviation that enabled Charles Lindbergh to fly non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927.
A 2011 Harvard Business School study found that innovation competitions “fuel research and development that typically exceeds the value of the prize itself,” a finding that we have reproduced with our CloudSpokes community. Here are just a few examples of the creative solutions that even modest contest prizes have generated for our partners and clients:
- A $2,000 prize resulted in this geolocation-based account checkin iPad app to help sales reps in the field keep track of customer visits
- A $1,500 prize led to an employee commute calculator to help companies determine the best (and more environmentally friendly) location for new offices
- A $750 prize resulted in this Chatter social influence app to help social enterprises track and reward employee collaboration
- A $700 prize allowed users to “jailbreak” their Chatter user profile page to display custom content
- A $500 prize led to the creation of an automated home security system, complete with motion detection, video capture, and SMS alerts
While these contests are cost effective (clients have estimated they would spend at least 2-3 times as much even using offshore resources), cost is not the biggest benefit. Submissions come from members who are enthusiastic about the technologies involved and who are competing with their peers for prizes and recognition, and this intrinsic motivation brings out the best in developers. In some cases, such as the “Chatter Jailbreak” app mentioned above, the community has come up with solutions that we would have never known were possible otherwise.
Just like the Orteig Prize helped draw people and resources into the burgeoning aviation industry, CloudSpokes has already attracted 30,000+ developers to help build the next generation of cloud computing solutions. Think of them as a multi-tenant pool of shared development resources, with top expertise in every technology, programming language, and platform, that you can tap into on-demand. And while there’s an obvious need for small businesses to complement limited in-house resources, the proliferation of cloud platforms means it’s no longer feasible for even large enterprises to internally staff for all needed skills, particularly when the demand for a particular technology or APIs is elastic (for example, Ruby-based social marketing apps that run on Heroku twice a year to support big seasonal retail campaigns).
In his Washington Post piece, Wadhwa advocates that NASA earmark 10% of its budget for innovation prizes. If 10% of NASA’s budget can spur breakthroughs in space travel and colonization, imagine the kind of innovation that a few percent of your organization’s IT budget could generate for your business!
Rob Cheng is Head of CloudSpokes Strategy at Appirio. His background includes product management, product marketing, and developer evangelism roles at Salesforce.com, CollabNet, Borland, Oracle and the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I). @robcheng