NASA Prizes for the Citizen-Inventor
The Centennial Challenges program seeks new solutions to specific technical problems of interest to NASA. The Challenges, which encourage participatory research and development, are open to private companies, universities, independent teams, and individual inventors. Our original seven prize challenges have been successful in encouraging broad participation by a diverse group of innovators. Many of these technical challenges also have direct relevance to pressing national and global needs such as energy and transportation.
The Centennial Challenges program is a multi-year activity with funding from previous years available for on-going competitions until the challenges are met and the prize money is won. All of the Centennial Challenges funding is applied to the prize purses. The program relies on partnerships with non-profit organizations to administer each challenge.
The Centennial Challenges program was conceived in 2003 and its name refers to the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight and commemorates their spirit as independent inventors. We worked with our partners in Congress to amend the Space Act to include Section 304 - Prize Authority. The Prize Authority allows us to use appropriated money to competitively award cash prizes to stimulate innovation.
The first competitions were held in 2005. Between 2005 and 2009, 19 competition events have been held in 7 challenge areas. We have awarded $4.5 million to 13 different teams. Most challenges have taken several years for competitors to achieve success.
Prize programs encourage diverse participation, which leads to different approaches to a solution. A measure of diversity is seen in the geographic distribution of participants (from Hawaii to Maine) that reaches far beyond the locations of the NASA Centers and major aerospace industries. The participating teams have included individual inventors, small startup companies, and university students and professors. An example of multiple solution paths was seen in the 2009 Regolith Excavation Challenge when teams developed more than 20 different working prototypes that were demonstrated to our judges. When NASA does its own development, it typically budgets for only two working prototypes. All of these prototypes were developed at no cost to the government. NASA expended $750,000 in prize money for three years of competitions around this challenge, with dozens of teams investing tens of thousands of hours.
The return on investment with prizes is exceptionally high as we only issue the prize funds when the accomplishment is demonstrated. We provide the prize money, which ends up being the only cost to NASA since non-profit organizations administer the competitions at no cost to the government. Teams must finance their own development efforts.
Prizes also raise visibility of NASA programs and generate interest in science and engineering. Live Web casts of Centennial Challenge competitions attract thousands of viewers across the nation and around the world. The 2009 Power Beaming competition resulted in more than 1,000 news articles and Web features.
The Centennial Challenges program offers a great opportunity for the government to encourage private individuals to pursue technology advances that will benefit society. It offers an opportunity to showcase the skill, determination, and creativity of these exceptional people. The Challenges are inspirational to the next generations of innovators by showing otherwise ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and having fun doing it.
Opening the door to all interested individuals and groups and providing the incentives of prize money and publicity increases the chances that valuable new technologies will be developed. As part of that openness, the government does not manage the activities of the competitors. Instead, we set the challenges and teams work on their own to come up with solutions. Centennial Challenges has proven its value, not only with new technologies to meet our needs but by tapping new sources of innovation, leveraging the tax-payer investment to create new businesses and partnerships, and increasing public involvement in science and technology.