Expect a flood of competitions as US tries to spur public inventions

Competes Act provisions on their way to emulating successful NASA, DoD, X Prize competitions

darpa new competition -- robots
When it comes to stirring the brains of genius, a good competition can bring forward some really great ideas.  That's the driving notion behind myriad public competitions, or challenges as they are often labeled, that will take place in the near future sponsored by your US government.

The competitions are increasing by design as part of the $45 billion America Competes Act renewed by Congress last year that gave every federal department and agency the authority to conduct prize competitions, according to the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.  The Competes act took its impetus from some pretty successful competitive programs already in place from government entities such as NASA, DARPA and the Department of Energy as well as private competition experts at the  X Prize Foundation.  

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DARPA in fact this week announced a new, $2 million Robotics Challenge that will launch in October.  Teams are sought to compete in challenges involving staged disaster-response situations in which robots will have to successfully navigate a series of physical tasks corresponding to anticipated, real-world disaster-response requirements. 

A report issued this week by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said that while the seven or so challenges that have been held in the first eight months under the auspices of the Competes act have resulted in some pretty cool applications, they are only the tip of the innovation iceberg.  The idea really is to reach beyond the "usual suspects" to increase the number of minds tackling a problem, the report states.

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"Over the past year, the Administration has laid the policy and legal groundwork to take maximum advantage of the new prize authority in the years to come, with GSA launching a new contract vehicle to decrease the amount of time required for agencies to tap private sector expertise and with the launch of the new government-wide Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation. Agencies have begun to establish specific strategies and policies to further accelerate widespread use of the new prize authority granted to them through Competes," the report states.

Some of the interesting challenges held under the Competes act so far include:

  • Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Challenge sponsored by the Department of Defense. A $10,000 prize offered for anyone who comes up with a unique disaster recovery kit that includes power, potable water and communications support. "The Challenge competition received eight submissions. Some of the entries contained some innovative ideas, but these ideas will require further modification to meet the overall needs of the project. Almost all were based on an aggregation of commercially available technologies," the report stated.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services held the $80,000 "Using Public Data for Cancer Prevention and Control: From Innovation to Impact" competition to develop an application that has the potential to integrate with existing health information technology platforms and addresses targets at one or more points on the cancer control continuum, using public data that are relevant to cancer prevention and control. Four winners split the prize.
  • CDC Flu App Challenge was a $35,000 competition sponsored by the Centers For Disease Control and sought to use CDC flu data to develop an innovative mobile or web application, data visualization, system, tool, or game that would improve communication about critical information about the flu and its impact. Through challenge submissions, CDC was able to see real applications of current technologies and approaches to the problem, and how they could be applied to CDC data and messages. The winning entry, Flu-Ville!, used current flu activity reports, prevention messages, and general CDC health information to create an interactive game, the report stated.

The report also detailed some of the stories behind successful public challenges including the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize that was awarded in September of 2010  to three teams who developed super fuel-efficient vehicles capable of achieving 100 miles per gallon or the energy equivalent (MPGe).   One of the driving principles behind the X Prize as well as the Competes challenges not only to win the competition but to be able to take those winning designs and turn them into real products.  Under a US Department of Energy-funded technical assistance program, qualified Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize competitors will get funding for access to key automotive expertise and test facilities.

The  X Prize Foundation last year detailed a top eight list of key challenges that could end up being public competitions in the coming months or years.  The eight X Prize concepts or challenges included: 

1. Water ("Super 'Brita' Water Prize") - Develop a technology to solve the world's number one cause of death: Lack of safe drinking water.

2. Personal Health Monitoring System ("OnStar for the Body Prize") - Develop and demonstrate a system which continuously monitors an individual's personal health-related data leading to early detection of disease or illness.

3. Energy & Water from Waste - Create and demonstrate a technology that generates off-grid water and energy for a small village derived from human and organic waste.

4. Around The World Ocean Survey - Create an autonomous underwater vehicle that can circumnavigate the world's oceans, gathering data each step of the way.

5. Transforming Parentless Youth - Dramatically and positively change the outcome for significantly at risk foster children, reducing the number of incarcerations and unemployment rate by fifty-percent or more.

6. Brain-Computer Interface ("Mind over Matter") - Enable high function, minimally invasive brain to computer interfaces that can turn thought into action.

7. Wireless Power Transmission - Wireless transmission of electricity over distances greater than 200 miles while losing less than two percent of the electricity during the transmission.

8. Ultra Fast Point-To-Point Travel - Design and fly the world's fastest point-to-point passenger travel system.

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