Grand Challenges represent enormous potential in their power to use open innovation practices to generate worldwide awareness of — and affinity for —private and public sector organizations. As challenge prizes grow and social media bring them to the attention of the world, Grand Challenges have also become an important part of public relations exercises for Grand Challenge sponsors like Virgin, Netflix and General Electric.

Like most simple methods, the Grand Challenge is actually applied ingenuity that owes its success and impact more to a deliberate plan, hard work and determination than slight of hand.

While the Grand Challenge may indeed use innovating in the public eye to draw enthusiastic applause from an appreciative, worldwide audience, it requires careful orchestration to be successful.  This White paper has been prepared for those interested in taking a closer look behind the curtain at the gears and levers of a successful Grand Challenge and the invaluable attention it also brings to sponsors and solution providers.

The Worldwide Web and Grand Challenges

Shorter time-to-market opportunities, truly global competition and greater emphasis than ever on R&D has placed innovation at the center of effort for corporations, government and academia, from General Electric’s efforts to improve breast cancer detection and in turn treatment, to the International AIDS Vaccine initiative to eradicate HIV. Social media platforms help to fuel the shift to innovation-driven business models and make it easier to share and source innovation from anyone, anywhere in the world.

By publishing and broadcasting your problem out over the Web, offer significant rewards for the winning solution, you will rapidly attract numerous innovators, determined to demonstrate their mental prowess. Thanks to the Internet, not only is the practice of open innovation catching up to its promise; the magnitude of the issues being solved has multiplied exponentially.

Thanks to the Internet, not only is the practice of open innovation catching up to its promise; the magnitude of the issues being solved has multiplied exponentially.

In 2006, Netflix needed a new algorithm to make it easier to predict which customers would demand which movies. The company offered a $1 million prize to anyone that created a better formula than the one proposed by its in-house team. Over 55,000 entrants from 186 countries participated. The Netflix challenge was groundbreaking in that it came from a household-name-brand company. This brought challenges into the public’s consciousness in a way that more esoteric, scholarly, and technically driven challenges had not.  Not only did it open up the solution provider community to non-technical people, it created the enormous collateral opportunity to use challenges to build awareness and inspire affinity for the organizations that sponsored them.

Among the most notable Grand Challenges of recent years is the Ansari X Prize that offered $10 million for the first civilian spacecraft design. The winning submission is now being used by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Equally impressive is that the challenge is credited for inventing the private-sector space industry and generating more than $100 million in investment funding. In fact, a number of Ansari X
also-rans formed companies and jumped into the civilian space race.

What Makes a Grand Challenge So Grand?

Unlike conventional challenges, today’s initiatives have a two-pronged objective.  Yes, first and foremost, the goal is to achieve a solution of such monumental impact that it literally changes the world.

But today, Grand Challenges also provide a secondary impact and benefit.  Enabled by social media, they represent an enormous public relations opportunity.  By investing in a Grand Challenge, its sponsor or sponsors can gain millions, if not tens of millions of dollars’ worth of positive image building. While everyone understands that in many cases there is indeed a commercial interest to be served, it is the corporate altruism that wins the day and the hearts — not to mention pocketbooks — of millions.

Grand Challenges attract attention, announcing themselves to the broad public. What makes a Grand Challenge “grand” is the magnitude and reach of its message, which inspires a “crowd” comprised of the technical and non-technical, experts and non-experts.  Through a coordinated program, with outreach campaigns and a prize strategy, Grand Challenges can amplify aspirational and technical messages to both technical and stakeholder communities.

What makes a Grand Challenge “grand” is the magnitude and reach of its message, which inspires a “crowd” comprised of the technical and non-technical, experts and non-experts.

The publicity must be precisely coordinated and executed to ensure that every phase of the Grand Challenge — from the moment the challenge and its attractive prize are announced, throughout the entry solicitation process, the identification of the judges, the judging itself, the declaration of the winner or winners, and the award ceremony – continues to build on itself and creates a buzz and following along the way.

At their core, Grand Challenges have to retain the same quality messaging, goals, and accountability as regular Open Innovation Request for Proposals (RFPs) and Challenges.  The key difference is that Grand Challenges have a positive message that they want to broadcast to a more diverse group that typically includes potential solution providers and non-solution providers. This is enabled by the convergence of Open Innovation, social media and a very careful orchestration of broadcasting and messages.

When GE launched their ecomagination Grand Challenge to solicit innovation for reducing the collective carbon footprint, the company fully understood the initiative’s potential for not only attracting solutions but also bringing positive consumer attention to its brand and products. Of course, the $100 million prize helped drum up publicity and participation, too. That’s a number that catches your attention, whether you are an experienced inventor or someone whose familiarity with technology begins and ends with using their iPhone.

Another example is In 2007, the Virgin Earth Challenge offered $25 million for a commercially viable way to extract greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The sponsor actively sought participants outside established supply channels and encouraged them to bring their non-traditional, approaches to accelerate development timelines. In other words, the global and public nature of Grand Challenges and often the significant monetary and nonmonetary prizes such as peer recognition and career advancement, inspire solution providers to apply their resources outside their expertise — disrupting the normal sourcing development chain. The reward for the Sponsor can be breakthrough approaches and non-obvious applications of technology achieved by looking at the problem from new perspectives.

The Key Elements of a Grand Challenge

What is behind the curtain at the core of a Grand Challenge?  These fundamental elements can generate innovation and success.

  1. Dual “Call to Action” – PR/Marketing and Technical
  2. Defined technology objectives
  3. Incentives
  4. Judging panel
  5. IT platform

A Dual “Call to Action”

A Dual “Call to Action” is essential to stimulate interest in both technology and broad stakeholder communities.  At the centerpiece of a Grand Challenge is its aspirational vision for positively impacting society.  The goal of the PR/Marketing campaign promoting the event is to highlight this message.  However, in order to motivate technical and broader stakeholder communities, there must be a clear and compelling “call to action.” You will often see a high level statement like GE’s “$100 million challenge for tools to fight breast cancer” intended to inspire the public, supported by defined technical statements that activate the technical community.  This integrated, coordinated PR and technical outreach provide the targeted messaging appropriate for each audience.

Defined technology objectives

Credible, clearly defined technology objectives are the essential link between the Grand Challenge goals and outcomes.  The technical community needs to see a direct connection between its current work and knowledge base in order to trigger response and participation.  Results–focused and achievable technology objectives are essential.  Establishing a defined timeline creates urgency to respond and maintains interest in the Challenge.  While some Grand Challenges span multiple years and set very high goals (e.g. the Ansari X-Prize space challenge), sometimes sponsors may not have the organizational resources to support a prolonged initiative.  The attention to Challenges needs to be sustained to retain attention, and the sponsor may struggle to define an endpoint short of the original objective.


Incentives for Grand Challenges need to be so significant that they motivate targeted solution providers to participate and captivate the interest of stakeholders.  While Grand Challenges rewards may often be significant, the monetary award is not necessarily the leading motivator.  Judit Puskas, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Akron recently won one of five grants awarded in the GE Healthymagination Cancer Challenge. The grant money actually surprised Puskas; she knew that the award meant widespread recognition, and only during a call with GE did she find out about the cash prize. In fact it has been shown that, although monetary rewards are important, many solvers will participate for other, more personal reasons.

Incentives are often awarded in phases, and can include participation in incubator and mentoring programs, can be access to Sponsors, Venture Capital and expert communities, and potential for future investment and collaborations.  This blended incentive program is most effective when it aligns with the central Grand Challenge strategy, converging vision and objectives.

Judging panels

Judging panels for Grand Challenges also send an important message to technical and broad stakeholder communities and affirm the credibility and fairness of the Challenge.  Whereas the winner selection process for grants and RFPs is generally kept secret, Grand Challenge selection committees and processes can and should be more public.  A judging panel that includes high-level executives and well-known industry experts conveys the Sponsor’s commitment to addressing a Challenge of this importance.  Timelines that call out the Challenge close date, assessment and review period, and winner announcements strengthen the Sponsor and the solution provider community objectives; establishing Sponsor accountability and winning the provider’s trust while building anticipation for the outcome.

The IT platform

The IT platform is the Challenge public window, creating a central place for communicating and working with technical and broader stakeholders.  There are many IT platforms available in today’s marketplace, bringing together social media functionality like blogs and voting, with the ability to privately or publicly submit proposals. Managing the platform is akin to air traffic control and must be done with a sensitive yet deliberate touch in order to ensure collaboration and positive, constructive submissions. Just as with any space open to the public, it attracts a wide range of people eager to share their ideas and opinions. Managing the data flow is key to a successful Grand Challenge.

To have or not to have a Grand Challenge

There are a number of criteria for determining whether or not an organization should sponsor a Grand Challenge.

  • Is the innovation need of such universal impact and importance that it will generate significant solution provider and worldwide PR?
  • Does the organization have the resources to put a big enough reward on the table, thereby ensuring a high level of response and participation? Are there co-sponsors who can share the financial burden of the prize?
  • Is the organization able to commit and sustain an internal team to the Grand Challenge for determined period of time?
  • Lastly, is the organization comfortable working with partners in the public eye? Grand Challenges focus a great deal of outside attention on the problem to be solved, and on the organizational sponsors. Some sponsors prefer to avoid the spotlight.

A “yes” to these questions is a strong indication that a Grand Challenge is a good idea.  The next step is putting together the right team:  an implementation group that leverages commitment and contributions from internal and external stakeholders, and cross functional expertise ranging from R&D to Marketing to IT.

By following this methodology, the team ensures that the Grand Challenge will result in an effective, actionable and winning solution.

The implementation group brings methodology and structure to the process by following the four phases of a well-run Grand Challenge. These are:

  1. Pre-Challenge: Developing the Challenge strategy and goals, including articulating the Challenge and creating an outreach strategy to technical and broad stakeholder communities.
  2. Submission: Launching the Challenge with a well defined OI roadmap, via social media platforms along with other channels, and receiving entries.
  3. Assessment: Data collection & organizing and judging of the submissions.
  4. Award:  Declaration of a winner or winners and the awarding of the Prize.

By following this methodology, the team ensures that the Grand Challenge will result in an effective, actionable and winning solution. For example, when the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) sought new approaches to an effective HIV vaccine, NineSigma provided a tightly written Challenge calling for experts in protein stabilization, considered key to a successful vaccine. By contrast, LAUNCH, a joint initiative of NASA, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Department of State, and NIKE, chose NineSigma to help with its LAUNCH: Energy Challenge, entitled Innovative Energy Technologies and Deployment Models for Sustainable Development. LAUNCH sought solutions for transforming the generation and delivery of electricity, and was open to many types of approaches.

The timeline for the Grand Challenge must also be agreed to and made public. Every milestone must be met – not only to maximize the PR opportunity each represents but also to reinforce the credibility of the Challenge and the seriousness of its sponsors, and to help bring it in on budget.

From beginning to end, a Grand Challenge can take less than 12 months. A dedicated implementation team brings continuity and accountability, orchestrating the contributions from multiple functional areas.

In addition, working with an open innovation firm is essential to ensuring that all the steps of the process run smoothly, from precisely defining a challenge, to bringing it to the attention of qualified solution providers within its own global network, and helping to evaluate potential responses. NineSigma, for example, is staffed with Ph.D.-level scientists and technologists who can write challenges that appeal to both experts and laypersons, and maximize the chances of finding the $100 million solutions that will really change the world.

In Conclusion

At the end of the day Grand Challenges provide high value in return. The ROI on the prize in terms of long-term revenues and PR can be so great to be incalculable.  Not just one element, but the convergence of a number of critical components that make a Grand Challenge work — a social need of worldwide importance, a well-articulated Challenge, experience in managing open innovation across social platforms and the vision to support a Grand Challenge and put up the prize. Combining these elements is what gives a Grand Challenge the power to truly affect the future of humankind.


In 2011, LAUNCH — a joint initiative of NASA, USAID, The Department of State and NIKE —collaborated with NineSigma to address the world’s energy problems.  Together, they issued the LAUNCH: Energy Challenge, Innovative Energy Technologies and Deployment Models for Sustainable Development, to find new approaches for generating and delivering electricity in developed and developing countries.

NASA, USAID, The US Department of State, and NIKE with the help of NineSigma, drafted an effective Need Statement, and distributed a Technology Brief to a broad spectrum of energy innovators, including companies, inventors, and nonprofit organizations. Together, the organizations also relied on media relations to help spread the word on their initiative. Within just three months, NineSigma helped LAUNCH identify and review over 160 game changing solutions.

Ten winners of the 2011 LAUNCH: Energy Challenge were announced in the fall of 2011. Among them were Gram Power with a microgrid solution that utilizes modular battery storage technology, energy management intelligence and a pre-payment business model. Point Source Power created an economical fuel cell that allows battery charging in cooking pits or fires.

Different from typical Grand Challenges, this program didn’t involve a quick cash reward. Instead, winners were invited to participate in the LAUNCH: Energy Forum at the Kennedy Space Center November 10-13, 2011. There, they enjoyed individual access to energy experts, investors, and executives, who provided recommendations to help accelerate their innovations, and assistance in creating high-impact presentations for future use.

At the same time, LAUNCH was able to reinforce its commitment to a sustainable future.


Each day, the world sees 7,400 new cases of HIV infection, and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) is trying to stop them by developing effective HIV vaccines for use throughout the world.

IAVI made the decision to use Open Innovation practices to search the globe for highly qualified scientists whose expertise could improve HIV vaccines. IAVI was particularly interested in designing vaccines based on stabilized HIV Envelope protein complexes.

To that end, NineSigma recommended, drafted, and distributed an RFP entitled “Engineering Stable Proteins,” and reached out to a worldwide network of distinguished protein scientists across medical and scientific sub-disciplines through the Internet, supplementing the process with email, blogs, media relations and social networking. NineSigma attracted 34 proposals from highly qualified scientists in 14 countries.

Ultimately, the firm helped IAVI identify two scientists who will receive a total of $875,000 to develop solutions. The solution providers that were chosen for funding or further collaboration included Dr. Rogier Sanders, Academic Medical Center, Medical Microbiology, Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Dr. Ralf Wagner, University of Regensburg Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene, Regensburg, Germany.

IAVI’s work now continues, with hopes that we are closer to eliminating the AIDS epidemic.

By Denys Resnick

About the author

Denys Resnick, Vice President, Strategic Programs, is responsible for incubating and launching NineSigma’s new products and services. She works with clients to identify their evolving innovation needs and collaborates with NineSigma’s operations, sales and marketing teams to develop the initiatives that make NineSigma the global innovation leader. Resnick previously served as NineSigma’s Director of Operations. Before joining Nine Sigma in 2008, Resnick was founder and President of TradeQuest, Inc., a consulting firm that developed and implemented international business growth strategies for global manufacturing and service companies. She brings 20 years of manufacturing and business development experience from companies like RPM, Faber Castell, and FedEx. Resnick earned an MBA in International Business and Finance from New York University, and a BA in International Relations from Tufts University.

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