Innovation and Entrepreneurship
2011 Innovation Tournament: Finding 'A Novel Match Between a Solution and a Need'Published: June 07, 2011
Soaking up oil spills with human hair, turning clunkers into hybrids and powering Tanzanian villages with rechargeable batteries are just a few of the ideas to come out of Knowledge@Wharton's second annual Innovation Tournament.
Sponsored jointly by K@W and Wipro Technologies, a global IT services company, the tournament challenged innovators from around the world to compete for a total of $40,000 in cash prizes. The tournament inspired more than 160 submissions from six continents. The 44 teams that made it to the semifinals were asked to submit video presentations. From those, the top 14 entrants were invited to Philadelphia on April 27 to present their ideas to a panel of judges made up of academics and industry leaders.
"I can't imagine a more diverse set of opportunities," Karl Ulrich, Wharton's vice dean of innovation and one of the judges, told the finalists at the end of the day's presentations. "We had [entries about] world peace and customer data and carbon credits.... It was incredibly diverse."
The competition was inspired by the book, Innovation Tournaments: Creating and Selecting Exceptional Opportunities, co-authored by Ulrich and Wharton operations and information management professor Christian Terwiesch. Similar to contests like American Idol, innovation tournaments create a framework that can help identify the best ideas by whittling down a large pool of diverse notions through several rounds of vetting, the authors say.
"It's a departure from the previous world view ... that innovation is a random outcome, that sparks illuminate and something just happens," said Terwiesch.
Judges evaluated the entries based on the definition of innovation as "a novel match between a solution and a need that creates value," according to Terwiesch, who also served as a judge. Teams could submit innovations related either to sustainability or customer-centricity, categories that were further divided into "new" or "implemented" ideas. All four elements of the definition --- need, solution, novelty and value -- needed to be strong for a team to win.
Solutions didn't necessarily have to be high tech, and the value of the innovation didn't have to be monetary, Terwiesch pointed out. For example, in the sustainability category, the "Hair Twister" team from India proposed a mat filled with human hair to clean up oil spills. Unlike some chemical spill mats, hair mats would trap the oil without destroying it, the team said. The oil could then be harvested and the mat re-used again and again. The mats could also be used in farming to reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, since the hair was a natural product. Best of all, the product would cost very little in India because barbershops and temples (which sometimes collect human hair as offerings) would donate the hair for free.
Instead of coming up with a new technology, "the novelty was the match between the solution and the need," Terwiesch said. "It was so novel and yet so simple."
A team from the Eastern Caribbean proposed an unusual way for Haiti to rebuild its economy without foreign aid or charitable donations -- an innovation with social as well as economic value. Noting that 80% of Haitians are unemployed and that many of the problems plaguing the island nation demand solutions that are labor-intensive, the "Funding for Haiti" group proposed a mandatory national service program that would require every household to work four hours per week on projects such as planting trees, building roads or clearing earthquake rubble. Work projects would be administered by the government or approved charities, which would pay workers with community service receipts that could be freely earned, traded, bought or sold.
"The goal of the program would be to give anyone who wants a job a job," noted presenter Russell Huntley. By mandating that every household submit receipts and levying fines on those who did not comply, the government would indirectly create a secondary market for work receipts. People employed in the private sector could legally meet their obligations by purchasing others' receipts, pumping new money into the economy. Haiti's 3.8 million unemployed could work to earn as many receipts as they wanted, and the economy would slowly grow as receipts were traded and projects reached completion.
"I was intrigued by the idea for stimulating economic activity in Haiti by deploying the large number of unemployed Haitian workers," Ulrich said. "The key insight was quite interesting -- that many of Haiti's challenges could be addressed by the application of labor and that there was a lot of idle labor."
In the end, five prizes were awarded: $5,000 to the winners in each of the four categories, and $20,000 as a grand prize.
The GRAND PRIZE: EGG-energy, for its battery-swapping service in Tanzania.
The need: About 500 million people in Africa live without access to electricity. In Tanzania, 90% of the population has no electricity even though 80% live within three miles of the grid. High grid connection fees and lack of infrastructure funding make access difficult. So to power lights and charge small devices like cell phones, most low-income households in Tanzania rely on kerosene, AA batteries or even car batteries -- methods that can be expensive, dangerous and bad for the environment.
The solution: EGG-energy solves Tanzania's electricity shortage by offering clean, rechargeable batteries that households can rent for an annual subscription fee. The 12-volt batteries, about the size of a brick, are enough to power the typical Tanzanian household for about a week. EGG, which stands for Engineering Global Growth, customizes the electrical system for each customer so the batteries can easily be plugged in and removed without hazard. "We install our customers' home electrical system, we charge the batteries, we swap batteries and we distribute batteries to swapping stations for more distant customers," said Rhonda Jordan, the company's U.S. representative. "We're like the Netflix of batteries."
The company also offers complementary appliances such as LED light bulbs, cell phone chargers and radio adapters. Over time, customers save up to 53% in energy costs. So far, the small for-profit company has brought electricity to 2,000 people with a single charging station and eight employees. The goal by 2015: 9,000 customers and $7.2 million in revenues, with sights set on other African markets.