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White House Launches, Offering Prize Money for Innovation

Federal agencies can now tap the wisdom of crowds to generate solutions to pressing problems.

This week the White House unveiled its latest weapon in its social media arsenal -- an online platform known as The site is a user-friendly aggregator of technology and innovation contests, most of which have cash prizes available for contest winners.

Since the original X-Prize -- a 2004 contest awarding $10 million to the first person or team to send a privately built vehicle into space -- public- and private-sector organizations have been adopting a prize scheme to engage the public’s collective knowledge to solve problems that no one company or organization likely could do by itself.

On federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NASA, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Health and Human Services can post a problem or challenge that’s in need of a solution. To use one need only fill out a brief registration form. Following that, a user can browse all the available challenges, the challenge details and when solutions are due.

While some of the posted challenges are fairly simple -- such as creating a short video about high-growth careers for the Department of Labor -- many of the challenges are not for the layperson. The $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize, for example, requires contestants to actually build next-generation vehicles. The same goes for the NASA Centennial Challenge, which requires entrants to build an aircraft that’s able to fly 200 miles in less than two hours using the energy equivalent of less than 1 gallon of gas per occupant; pretty tough, but there is a $1.5 million first-place prize.

The origin of is traced to a September 2009 initiative from President Barack Obama called the Strategy for American Innovation. The strategy called on government agencies to, among other things, foster innovation by offering challenges and prize money. Many of the challenges are co-sponsored by private-sector companies and/or organizations.


Chad Vander Veen is a former contributing editor for Emergency Management magazine, and previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.