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How crowdsourcing can boost green chemistry

<p>InnoCentive helps companies and nonprofits tap the collective innovation of its network of 300,000 problem solvers.</p>

Crowdsourced or Challenge Driven Innovation (CDI) is a way to create new markets and solve problems quickly and cost effectively by harnessing diverse and creative on-demand talent outside one’s own organization. 

CDI is typically used to complement in-house innovation programs. A number of companies have launched in the decade to provide platforms and services to assist companies, government agencies and nonprofits in running CDI projects.

As part of its effort to mainstream green chemistry, the manufacturers, brands and retailers in the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council (GC3) has explored CDI and other new innovation models and programs that can be used to accelerate green chemistry. The GC3 took a close look at InnoCentive, given its successful track record in the green chemistry space. Here’s what we learned.

Launched in 2001, InnoCentive offers a set of finely tuned products and services used by companies, government agencies and nonprofits to ramp up their innovation programs. InnoCentive’s online platform hosts technical challenges that they broadcast out to their own network of 300,000 problem solvers, also known as InnoCentive’s Global Solver Community. Through its new partnerships with Nature and Scientific American, the company can reach an even larger community. These solvers compete to provide novel ideas and solutions in exchange for a monetary award for the solution selected by the challenge sponsor. Anyone can view live challenges on Innocentive’s website.

InnoCentive has hosted a number of green chemistry challenges, including:  

• Chemical synthesis routes that avoid toxic chemicals
• Non-toxic solvents for specialty applications, such as art restoration
• Safe reagents for commercial chemical processes
• Green polymers for food, medicine and construction
• A method to bond electrical components to glass without the use of lead

InnoCentive is not the only game in town. A number of other companies offer CDI platforms such as Innovation Exchange, NineSigma’s NineSights and Innoget, but what makes InnoCentive so successful is its keen understanding of the innovation process and the guidance it provides sponsors on how to structure challenges to increase the probability that the solutions submitted will meet their needs. 

InnoCentive guides sponsors in choosing from several types of challenges — and plans for handling intellectual property (IP). For example, "ideation challenges" are designed to produce a breakthrough idea, with the solver granted a non-exclusive license to use any IP upon submission. "Theoretical challenges" seek a feasible design that may not yet be reduced to practice. Solvers will be required to either transfer or license the IP to the sponsor organization.

Going it alone, Akzo Nobel’s Open Innovation website lists specific short and medium term technology needs that are closely linked to ongoing research activities and product development. They also give an open invitation to innovators to submit technology ideas that are synergistic with their articulated, long-term innovation strategy. The specific technology needs currently listed include two green chemistry challenges. One is for a method to guard against fungal infestations in wood that does not contain toxic biocides; the other is for an ingredient in particleboard and fiberboard resins that will prevent mold growth without the use of toxic boron or copper-based chemicals. The site contains examples of commercial products sold by Akzo Nobel that developed from an idea submitted through the website.

Finally, on a grander scale, Nike has partnered with NASA, U.S. AID and the U.S. State Department to create a crowdsource program called LAUNCH, designed to accelerate sustainable textile product concepts and manufacturing processes. The program recently selected 10 innovations that it is helping to bring to market. Several are green chemistry standouts, such as Qmilk, a new antimicrobial, flame-resistant textile fiber made out of spoiled milk. 

Test tube image by isak55 via Shutterstock.

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