Company contests offer new ways to generate ideas, make money
Calling all creative and technical minds: Uncle Sam wants to tap your brain. So do businesses and non-profits.
And if your ideas are strong enough, you may be paid handsomely, or a business may offer you an internship or a job.
In the past couple of years, the federal government started using competitions open to the public to garner ideas and solutions to problems.
But, contests have been around for decades as a way of spurring innovation and discovery, says Michael Timmons, director of marketing and client services for Skild.com, which helps organizations manage competitions. “Some explorers came [to North America] because of a prize,” he says.
Now, however, the Internet makes running competitions – and disseminating information about challenges to a wide audience – easier. A challenge sponsored by auto maker Nissan, for instance, had entrants register through Facebook, so news of the contest spread to the entrant’s connections, says Timmons.
Still, the competition world is unknown to many.
Here, a primer on finding if a contest could benefit you or someone you know, and how some of them work:
Contests For Students
A few years ago, Keaton Swett and two friends – all recent college graduates – decided to launch the site, Mindsumo.com. The inspiration for the site, explains Swett, came from a college class where companies came in during the semester, posing “real world” problems for the students to work on.
The Mindsumo site posts competitions from businesses that involve business and marketing skills, or science and engineering talents. Recently, for instance, a diaper manufacturer solicited ideas on how mothers could know it’s time for a diaper change, offering $160 to three top winners and $40 to three honors winner.
Colleges publicize the Mindsumo site to their students, says Swett. Initially, about 50 “top-tier” schools, like those in the Ivy League, participated, but now many more schools are getting involved. “It’s a chance for smart students anywhere to get noticed,” says Swett. Although the monetary prizes are modest, the “vast majority of firms that post these positions are looking to fill open positions or internships,” says Swett.
Similarly, companies use Skild to offer students – usually those in MBA programs– an opportunity to compete for solutions to business problems. “Students sign up without knowing [the competition details]” says Timmons. “So far, we’ve done 160 competitions, with 30 of them this year.”
Not all the competitions Skild helps host are limited to students, says Timmons. For instance, the recent Nissan Innovation Garage competition garnered more than 16,000 submissions.
Fixing Big Issues
On September 7, 2010, the site Challenge.gov launched to solicit ideas for projects and problems that federal agencies face.
Recently, the United States Department of Health and Human Services offered $7,500 to first place winners who came up with the best ideas for helping women learn about the benefits available to them and their families through the Affordable Care Act. And, the United States Department of State offered $10,000 in prizes for ideas on how technology could support future arms control inspections.
A spokesperson for the United States General Services Administration reports that in the early days after the site’s launch, challenges averaged about 30 to 40 entrants, but now the average is about 100 entrants per challenge. Competitions are also open to small businesses.
Foundations and Philanthropies
In a 2009 report from McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm urged philanthropies to “consider the opportunity to use prizes to help achieve their mission, and to accept the challenge of fully exploiting this powerful tool.”
Contests are indeed a good source of tapping new ideas, notes Mayur Patel of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has run about a dozen contests since 2007.
But it’s only a small minority of philanthropies who use contests, according to a Knight Foundation report.
To spread the word about a contest, the Knight Foundation uses paid advertisements in the media, as well as through blogs and its own website, explains Lynch.
Indeed, finding contests, whether sponsored by a non-profit or other organization, may take some digging, just as winning involves some serious reflection to find an outstanding solution.
© CTW Features