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How Open Innovation Can Solve Environmental Problems Large & Small

<p>The first prize from a challenged issued by the Environmental Defense Fund and InnoCentive proposes a simple solution to the problem of pollution from nitrogen-rich farm runoff. It's just one of many little challenges that could add up to big solutions.</p>

We is smarter than me.

That's the premise behind a partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund and InnoCentive. You probably know EDF -- they're a (mostly) business friendly nonprofit that looks for solutions to environmental problems. InnoCentive is a company that has built an open Internet platform to connect other firms, governments and NGOs to creative people all over the world who can help them solve problems.

Last week, EDF and InnoCentive declared a winner in their first challenge, which looked for a new approach to the old problem of agricultural nitrate pollution: He is Patrick Fuller, 23, who is studying for a PhD. in chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern. He'll be awarded $5,000 for his idea, about which more below.

To learn more about the partnership, I spoke with Beth Trask, who leads, along with David Witzel, leads what EDF calls its innovation exchange, an effort to spread new "green" solutions among companies.

"Like many people," Beth told me, "we've been looking with much interest at the open innovation space. Basically, the concept is that there are many more ideas and possible solutions out there in the world than any given company or organization can tap into on its own."

This isn't an entirely new approach. Prizes have been used an incentive to solve scientific problems for centuries [See my 2009 blog post, The Strange Power of Prizes]. More recently, companies including Kraft Foods ("Do you have a new product or packaging idea?") and GE, with its EcoMagination Challenge, have used the Internet to look outside their own walls for new ideas. Richard Branson's Virgin Earth Challenge offered a $25 million prize for a commercially viable plan to reverse climate change by removing CO2 from the air, while the $10-million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE was set up to inspire new low-polluting cars.

EDF's challenges aren't as sexy, sweeping, or pricey. But, says Beth: "There are a lot of nuts and bolts sustainability problems that we believe could be solved but aren't being solved." The group is looking for new technologies to better measure point sources of water pollution, and for a cost-effective way to analyze crop growth. Other challenges are in the works.

Breaking down big problems into their discrete parts is a key to success on InnoCentive, according to Dwayne Spradlin, the company's president and CEO. "Our view of the world is that very few problems are large, structural problems," he told me by phone. "If you frame the challenge right, you dramatically increase the odds of getting a solution. I can't say how religious we are about focus."

InnoCentive was developed by drug company Eli Lilly in 2001, and spun out as its own firm in 2005. Today, Spradlin says, it manages challenges in a variety of fields, some unexpected. [I can't wait for the company to solve this one -- Increasing People's Ability to Start and Stay on Task. A $10,000 award awaits the winner.] InnoCentive has worked on challenges with Procter & Gamble, NASA and the Rockefeller Foundation.

They get to tap into a network of about 250,000 "solvers" who are located in more than 200 countries. About 60 percent have masters degrees or PhD's, the company says.

 Pat Fuller, the Northwestern student, is on his way. A fellow grad student who had won an award told him about InnoCentive, and as he scanned the site a few months ago, EDF's request for help with fertilizer runoff got his attention.

He was inspired to come up with a solution not so much by his current research -- which is mostly computational, he told me -- but by something he'd seen growing up in Rhode Island where he'd worked in a store that sold fruits and vegetables. A farmer there told him that he'd used algae collected from local ponds to help his plants grow faster. So Pat wondered what would happen if the runoff could be captured, and the nitrogen-rich water recycled to grow algae, as fertilizer.

"I sat down for a weekend, worked out the mathematics and wrote the paper," Pat told me. Nice way for a grad student to earn $5,000. Says Beth: "We never would have found this kid."

This is more than a nice story, though. Patrick's idea will be tested by Iowa soybean and corn farmers, who have built a good working relationship with the Environmental Defense.

As EDF explains, while farmers have good reason to want to cut down on wasted fertilizer, so do the rest of us -- sediment and fertilizer runoff "create algae-filled 'dead zones' and pollute drinking water supplies" in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, maybe, EDF, InnoCentive, Iowa farmers, a $5,000 prize and a 23-year-old grad student will find a way to change that.

For more on how companies are using innovation to solve environmenal problems and engage employees, check out our upcoming Innovation Forum 2011, which takes place October 11 to 13 in San Francisco.

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