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By taking the form of a public competition, they aim to engage the broadest community of problem-solvers. The Challenge Prize Centre at Nesta builds capability and evidence on this approach. So far it has attracted over 7000 problem-solving innovators to its challenges.

Challenge prizes as an innovation method

Challenge Prizes offer a reward to whoever can first or most effectively meet a defined challenge.

They are a tried and tested way to support and accelerate innovation. As early as the 18th century, cash prizes were spurring breakthroughs in areas from food preservation to more accurate marine navigation.

By taking the form of a public competition, they aim to engage the broadest community of problem-solvers. Challenge prizes typically have multiple stages with financial and non-financial support for the most promising teams. This is important in attracting new talented innovators to a problem or market that they are not familiar with.

They are also typically time sensitive with clear development milestones and a final end date.

Our work on challenge prizes

Nesta has pioneered the use of challenge prizes to tackle a range of social issues - from how to age well and how to best support agriculture in developing countries, to how to better integrate migrants and refugees in Europe. Our earliest involvement in challenge prizes started with the Big Green Challenge in 2008, which encouraged community-led responses to climate change.

In 2012, inspired by our research into emerging innovation contests and prizes around the world, we launched the Challenge Prize Centre (CPC) to increase understanding and practical evidence about prizes as an innovation method. We did this to encourage more governments, charities and businesses to use them as a way of having a tangible positive impact on society. Challenge prizes are not just effective at changing how things are done in the short-term, but can also be used to help solve long-term social challenges.

Our flagship Longitude Prize has inspired more than 200 teams globally to work on developing a diagnostic test to address the challenge of antibiotic resistance. Launched in 2014 after a nationwide competition featured on the BBC, it has been supported by Innovate UK, the Indian government and global companies such as GSK.

Since 2013, we have run 26 prizes totalling £17m in award value and have attracted over 7,000 innovators to different causes. Our prizes have reached well beyond the UK, including prizes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. This means we have partnered with a variety of governments, organisations and companies from all around the world - including the Toyota Mobility Fund, USAID, the UK’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the European Commission, amongst others.

We are committed to growing awareness about challenge prizes and expanding our international network to reach more innovators and potential partners.

In 2017 and 2018 we hosted Challenges of Our Era summits - these events gathered policymakers, academic researchers, frontline professionals and innovators, technologists and funders to design new challenge initiatives. Topics focussed on global problems like food security and surgical inequality.

We have also created a defined methodology, designed to find areas where innovation is needed most and establish how best to reach new communities of innovators. In 2014, we developed a practice guide to share this approach, providing practical guides on how to develop a challenge prize.

Our ongoing work continues to focus on developing challenge prizes that excite and engage the brightest minds to solve problems so that solutions are found faster.

Case study

The Data Driven Framing Prize

In the Data Driven Farming Prize, delivered on behalf of USAID, we invited innovators to create smart tools to support farmers in producing more food in Nepal. Over 140 teams applied from around the world - with 13 finalists given additional support to develop their product further, with exciting results for plant diagnostics and moisture management.

Open Up Challenge

At the forefront of open banking, the Open Up Challenge is a challenge prize aimed at developing new apps and tools that help small businesses in the UK get game-changing value from their banking services. Its goal is transform how small businesses make their financial decisions for the better. The first phase supported 20 teams with cash awards of £50,000.

The Dynamic Demand Challenge

Technology is a key focus area for the CPC, enabling a whole new scale of innovation and collaboration across geographies. The Dynamic Demand Challenge sets out to stimulate the development of new technology solutions that help cut emissions and manage demand for electricity at peak times. One contestant, Upside Energy, which balances demand in the grid with energy stored in electric vehicles, domestic heating systems and UPS devices, has attracted investment of over £5 million since entering the prize process. Meanwhile, finalist Powervault, which makes a home energy storage device, has also gained new investors since the prize was awarded.

Flying High

This prize looks at how new technology can be harnessed for social good. The prize challenges drone engineers to ensure they bring urban benefits, such as help with transporting medical supplies, or search and rescue support.

Nesta tools and resources

Other useful reading material