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Challenge.gov Celebrates Five Years of Open Innovation

Washington, D.C.—The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) hosted senior leaders and Federal innovators from across the federal government, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and United States Agency International Development (USAID) on Oct. 8 to celebrate five years of public-sector prize competitions and open innovation on Challenge.gov.

The event, part of a two-day engagement, highlighted Challenge.gov’s progress and impact on government, spotlighted past challenge winners and their success, and honored federal recipients of the first-ever Five Years of Excellence in Federal Challenge & Prize Competition Awards.

The complete list of honorees includes:

Best Challenge for Students:

Future Engineers 3D Printing in Space Challenges, NASA

For the last two years, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Foundation and NASA have partnered to develop a series of challenges focused on solving real-world space exploration problems. These events have engaged K-12 students using 3D modeling software to submit their designs to the 3D Printing in Space Challenges, and encouraged them to become the future creators and innovators of tomorrow. The winner will have their design printed on the 3D printer aboard the International Space Station. (Leads: Niki Werkheiser and Carol Galica)


Best Software/Apps:

NIJ Ultra-High Speed Application Challenge, Department of Justice

The National Institute of Justice encouraged software developers and public safety professionals to use public data and ultra high-speed bandwidth systems with apps that improve criminal justice or public safety services. The winning solution was a school emergency screencast application that uses existing camera systems, ultra high-speed bandwidth, and gunshot detection hardware to report fire immediately to first responders. Video and audio feeds then allow emergency personnel to identify an active shooter and provide potentially life-saving information to improve response time and tactical decisions. (Leads: Nancy Merritt and Joe Heaps)


Best in Technology:

Desal Prize, USAID and Bureau of Reclamation

The U.S. Agency for International Development and Bureau of Reclamation challenged innovators around the world to create cost-effective, energy-efficient, and sustainable desalination technologies to provide water for people and crops. The winning team designed a solar-powered system that removes salt from water with electricity and uses UV rays to disinfect it. It shows the potential for photovoltaic-powered electrodialysis to be a scalable, sustainable, and affordable desalination technology for rural areas of developing countries. [Leads: Ku McMahan, USAID; Jarah Meador, formerly USAID, now with VA; and Trey Flowers, Randall Shaw, and Saied Delagah, USBR]


Best in Creative/Design & Multimedia

  1. Game On!: HIV/STD Prevention Mobile Application Video Game  Challenge, HHS: One in four new HIV infections occur among youth aged 13 to 24 years, and about 1,000 youth are infected with HIV every month. Innovative, appealing, and relevant strategies to provide HIV prevention information must be developed to reduce HIV risk among youth. Video gaming is very popular among youth and could be an effective strategy for getting youth the information they need about HIV and other STDs. Lt. Cmdr. Patterson Mosley lead of a team of colleagues to develop, market, and launch an online contest calling developers to create smartphone game applications to educate youth or young adults on HIV and STD prevention in an entertaining, fun, and engaging way. One of the winning solutions is now available for free release in the Apple store, and this contest paved the way for subsequent game contests and challenges.
  2. Carbon Monoxide Poster Contest, Consumer Product Safety Commission: This challenge began in 2010 and continues today, engaging thousands of students across the country in understanding the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning and offering creative ways to tell others through their poster designs. This was among the first effective and successful creative challenge competitions on Challenge.gov, and helped the agency achieve mission goals in a new way. In addition, the challenge managers served as mentors and leaders for those who followed to learn about how to run competitions with subjective creative goals and specific guidelines and legal requirements for working with students. [Leads: Patty Davis (2010-2015), Stacey Palosky and Kristin Dohn (2013-2015)]

Best in Analytics, Visualizations, Algorithms:

INSTINCT Challenge, IARPA

The INSTINCT challenge asked members of the American public to develop algorithms that improve predictions of trustworthiness. Over 450 solvers registered for the challenge and 39 solutions were submitted. The application of the winning techniques to behavioral prediction was novel, improved on accuracy by 15 percent, and will help IARPA to more appropriately follow up on TRUST program results. This challenge has also helped to jump-start IARPA’s use of challenges, with the ASPIRE speech recognition challenge now underway and other challenges in the planning stages. [Leads: Adam Russel (now with DARPA) and Ruthanna Gordon]


Best in Ideas

  1. Vehicle Stopper Competition, Air Force Research Lab: More than a thousand people registered and 119 submitted entries. The winning idea was a remote powered electric vehicle that can accelerate to 130 mph in 3 seconds, position itself under a moving car and stop it with an elevated air bag. The AFRL has run hundreds of competitions and this is just one of many ideas that is being prototyped or put into use by the U.S. Military. The AFRL partners with the Wright Brothers Institute to bring a multiplier effect of innovation to the organization. (Lead: Dr. Alok Das)
  2. My Money AppUp IdeaBank Challenge, Department of Treasury: First phase of a two part challenge that asked the public what financial applications they want to help Americans control and shape their financial futures. Received 317 entries! Stellar list of public and private sector judges. Prize money for winners in this phase, and plan for building the apps and getting the ideas built to the next phase.

Best in Science

Predict the Influenza Season Challenge, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Predict the Influenza Season Challenge was designed to foster innovation in flu activity modeling and prediction. The challenge sought models that would successfully predict the timing, peak, and intensity of the 2013-2014 flu season using social media data. CDC evaluated 13 forecasts based on a variety of digital data sources and methodologies. The high number of forecasts received through this challenge stands in stark contrast to the number that likely would have been received through traditional contracts or grants. (Lead: Matthew Biggerstaff)


Best Challenge Engagement Strategy

  1. WAVE Energy Prize, Department of Energy: Wave energy converters (WECs) are still a nascent technology with little market penetration. The DOE partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division on the Wave Energy Prize to double the state-of-the-art energy capture per unit structural cost of WECs in 20 months. This will reduce the cost of wave energy, making it more competitive with traditional energy solutions. This prize developed an excellent communications and engagement strategy that includes an online marketplace linking teams and experts. Because of this excellent outreach, 92 teams registered for the competition. The 20 qualifying teams will continue their quest to double the energy captured from ocean waves and win a prize purse totaling more than $2 million.
  2. 2014 HHS Health Game Jam, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC team partnered with several different organizations to produce the event, including Southern Polytechnic State University (SPSU) and the Georgia Game Developers Association who hosted the event. They solicited colleagues at CDC and our sister HHS agencies HRSA and NIH to be subject matter experts. Event attendance and number of games produced exceeded expectations. The event demonstrated that game jams can effectively and efficiently be used to build inexpensive demos of HIV-related games and to improve awareness of and interest in public health careers. (Leads: Dan Baden, Peter Jenkins, Leigh Willis)

Best in Business Plans/Entrepreneurship

  1. Technology Transfer Center, NIH Startup Challenge Program, National Cancer Institute: In 2013, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in partnership with the non-profit Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), and the Avon Foundation for Women launched a first-of-a-kind, international university-based competition through which 478 people were trained in the “business of science” and entrepreneurship. Through the creation of startup companies, the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge (BCSC) represented a new model to accelerate the transfer of federally funded inventions to the marketplace. In 2014, several NIH Institutes partnered with CAI to launch the Neuro Startup Challenge (NSC) which is centered on promising neuro-related technologies. Both challenges are focused on increasing the volume and likelihood of moving promising NIH inventions to the marketplace, where they can provide benefit to world health. The NIH Challenge program included nine NCI breast cancer-related technologies and 16 NIH neuro-related technologies; in total, 85 teams studied these technologies, the related market and created business plans to develop and commercialize them. Even in the high-risk business of biotechnology startups, several of the BCSC startups are still viable and active. Though in very early stages, the winners of the NSC are making great strides and are beginning to meet key milestones, and NASA recently announced a similar startup challenge for space technologies.
  2. National Clean Energy Business Plan Competition, Department of Energy: This competition aims to inspire clean energy innovation across the country by creating businesses from technology research, while inspiring and cultivating America’s next generation of entrepreneurs to drive those businesses forward. In addition to competing for six $100,000 regional prizes across the country, students receive mentorship and training, enhancing their entrepreneurial skills and preparing them to launch technologies from research institutions into the market. So far, more than 70 ventures have incorporated, received more than $38 million in follow-on funding, and generated more than 120 jobs. (Lead: Jennifer Garson)

Most Creative Incentive

2014 FDA Food Safety Challenge, HHS

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched the Food Safety prize competition to inspire breakthrough ideas on how to quickly find disease-causing organisms in food, especially Salmonella. Several competitors reported that the access to FDA experts during the challenge was as valuable to them as the cash incentive. The winning team from Purdue University reported that “The biggest insights have been on the large number of samples that must be processed and the importance of rapid detection of pathogens in fruits and vegetables. These insights and mentoring from the FDA focused our work on adapting the instrument to achieve higher sample throughput while maintaining sensitivity.” (Lead: Chad Nelson)


Interagency Collaboration

My AIR My HEALTH, EPA and HHS

HHS and EPA have found a number of ways to partner on challenges since this challenge which opened in 2012 and ended in 2013. This challenge leveraged the interagency partnership provisions of the America COMPETES Act to develop new, portable sensors that provide near real-time, location-specific monitoring and reporting of air pollutants and potentially related physiological parameters, using a personal and portable integrated system to assess connections between the two. Thirty-two teams competed to win awards in a two-phase competition. One winner’s prototype built to scale could cost as little as $20. (Leads: Denice Shaw and Dustin Renwick, EPA; Ruthanna Gordon, IARPA); David Balshaw, HHS/NIH; Adam Wong, HHS/ONC; and Allen Dearry, HHS/NIH)


Public/Private Partnership Collaboration

  1. Headhealth Challenge III, NIST: The NFL, GE, Under Armour, and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) partnered on an open innovation competition to advance materials that better absorb or dissipate energy. These new materials could improve the performance of protective equipment for athletes, military personnel and those in dangerous occupations. The challenge, which will award up to $2 million for innovative materials, is part of the $60 million Head Health Initiative, a multiyear collaboration between GE and the NFL, launched in March 2013. NIST joined the open innovation series in this third round. Through this collaboration, NIST will explore new testing and standards for angular impacts incurred in sport. Public-private partnerships such as this are essential to NIST’s mission to foster innovation. (Leads: Michael Fasolka and Heather Evans)
  2. Asteroid Data Hunter, NASA: The Asteroid Data Hunter challenge was part of NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge. The data hunter contest series, which was conducted in partnership with Planetary Resources under a Space Act Agreement, was announced at the 2014 South by Southwest Festival and concluded in December. The series offered awards for participants to develop significantly improved algorithms to identify asteroids in images captured by ground-based telescopes. The Asteroid Grand Challenge is seeking non-traditional partnerships to bring the citizen science and space enthusiast community into NASA’s work. The data hunter challenge incorporated data provided by the Minor Planet Center (MPC), at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, and images provided by the Catalina Sky Survey, an astronomical survey project run by the University of Arizona and focused on the discovery and study of near-Earth asteroids and comets. [Leads: Jason Kessler, Jenn Gustetic, Lindley Johnson, Victoria Friedensen, NASA COECI (Jason Crusan, Lynn Buquo)]

Greatest Impact for Citizens

Robocall, Zapping Rachel, and Humanity Strikes Back Robocall Challenges, FTC

FTC has run a series of robocall-related challenges. The first winner created Nomorobo which has gained over 170,000 subscribers and blocked over 37 million robocalls. Google has also incorporated parts of its winning submission into its Google Voice service. The Robocall Challenge stimulated the market to create more call-blocking solutions. Following up on the success of the FTC’s Robocall Challenge, the agency launched its second contest, Zapping Rachel, in August 2014 at DEF CON 22, one of the oldest conferences for information security specialists. Zapping Rachel not only resulted in a more sophisticated robocall honeypot design, it also furthered the development of honeypots and analysis of honeypot data.  Additionally, the FTC gained several new partners at DEF CON 22 who have all joined the Voice Telephony Abuse Special Interest Group – an industry group dedicated to seeking solutions to nuisance calls and with which the FTC is closely working. (Leads: Patty Hsue, Cheryl Warner)


Greatest Impact for Government Mission

  1. Medicaid Provider Portal Challenge, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: All state Medicaid agencies must have system functionality to accept providers’ applications to become a billable Medicaid provider, screen them to ensure they are properly licensed and conduct required background checks to protect against fraud. This system functionality is built over and over again in each state, with 90 percent federal funding and little reuse from state to state. In order to increase state and vendors’ access to open-source code that could be used at a dramatically lower cost and faster execution time, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), executed a series of challenge contests to develop a Medicaid Provider Shared Service solution for States to assist in their provider screening efforts. The Challenge contests demonstrated a new paradigm for constructing State Information Technology (IT) systems by opening the Medicaid systems market to new sources, with new technology solutions, which could “plug and play” with existing legacy systems, or could operate in a shared, cloud-based environment. The total cost to build this software through a challenge is estimated to be one-sixth of the cost of a traditional contracting approach. [Leads: Jessica Kahn and Chip Garner, HHS/CMS; and NASA COECI (Lynn Buquo and Karl Becker)]
  2. Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation, NASA: NASA’s CoECI has launched over 156 challenges inclusive of its internal challenge platform as well as external challenges on the InnoCentive, Appirio-TopCoder, Tongal, and GrabCad platforms for both NASA and other Federal Agencies.  CoECI has been instrumental in providing several agencies the opportunity to pilot the use of challenges prior to standing up their own operational mechanisms to advance the use of challenges. CoECI has provided over a dozen agencies with consulting advice ranging from challenge design to legal and procurement advice to specific examples of key lessons learned.  They have established a streamlined InterAgency Agreement process and just awarded 10 contracts under a 5-year, IDIQ, fixed-price procurement greatly expanding access to challenge-based services and expertise. [Leads: Jason Crusan, Jeff Davis, Lynn Buquo, Steve Rader, Carolyn Woolverton, Allison Wolff, Karl Becker, Mike Ching, Kathryn Keeton, Elizabeth Richard]

Greatest Impact Worldwide
Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention, USAID

The Model Challenge used unrelated, publicly available datasets to produce five diverse algorithms capable of predicting where violence against civilians might occur, using very different statistical methodologies. The contest demonstrated that relevant, but unstructured data could be used to predict where violence against civilians might occur using a variety of methods. The winning algorithms were produced by coders with very little experience in the humanitarian space, and fed into research and other tools in the academic and non-profit space. The overall challenge was cited as a success in genocide prevention in 2013 by endgenocide.org. For this challenge, USAID produced a set of challenges around atrocity prevention, each focusing on a different aspect of the problem, such as communication or modeling and prediction. This portfolio approach provides a gold standard for using challenges as part of a larger problem solving strategy. (Leads: Maurice Kent, Mark Goldenbaum)


Edison Innovation Award

Sunshot Catalyst, Department of Energy

The spirit of the Edison award is a challenge that was inventive in its goals, design and approach. The Sunshot Catalyst challenge embodies that spirit. Solar SunShot Catalyst is a groundbreaking prize that is now being emulated by prize teams across DOE and beyond. SunShot Catalyst is an open innovation program that aims to catalyze the rapid creation and development of products and solutions that address near-term challenges in the U.S. solar marketplace. Through a series of prize challenges, SunShot Catalyst makes it easier for American innovators to launch cutting-edge solar companies faster. Since its inception, SunShot has helped hundreds of innovators bring mature solar solutions to the marketplace. This small team has had a huge impact, creating 17 times as many projects, 50 times faster, and at 10 times the cost reduction than standard 3-phase SBIR/STTR awards. (Leads: Minh Le, Michael Contreras, Ammar Qusaibaty, Craig Connelly, Stephanie Johnson, Bosco So, Michael Goldstone, Jamie Nolan, Debbie Brodt, Shubha Bansal, Victor Kane, and Elaine Ulrich)


Unsung Hero

The unsung heroes were people who worked hard behind the scenes. Some were the first go get things done in their agencies. Others worked behind the scenes — whether they were scientists, lawyers, financial administrators, program managers,  communications and other staff — who helped to make sure things got done.  


Newcomer of the Year (2015)

  1. DHS Prize Competition Team, Department of Homeland Security: In September 2014, the DHS S&T established a competitive awards program for the Department. The DHS Prize Competition Team established and implemented the program based on best practices of the Federal Prize COP. The team staffed a Department Directive and Instruction; established a contract with a GSA Challenge vendor; and launched its first competition in just four months.  Other accomplishments include: developing a prize competition guidebook, checklist, and internal SharePoint site; developing standardized judging guidelines; publishing a monthly newsletter; planning and hosting two brownbags and five workshops; providing 15 briefings; and conducting market research to develop a follow-on prize competition services contract. (Leads: Elissa Sobolewski and Jim Grove)
  2. Bureau of Reclamation: The Bureau of Reclamation’s Research and Development Office created the Water Prize Competition center. The center has convened three interagency groups to design high-impact prizes in the following topic areas: water availability, ecosystem restoration, and infrastructure sustainability. In addition to convening important discussions about water prizes, this group has been a leading experimenter within the Department of the Interior and a thought leader in better connecting the federal technology transfer community to the federal prize community. (Leads: Chuck Hennig, Ian Ferguson, Connie Svoboda and Saied Delagah)
  3. VA Innovation Creation Series – Prosthetic + Assistive Technology Challenge: The VA Innovation Creation Series aimed to facilitate development of personalized technologies to improve care and quality of life for Veterans. This challenge leveraged extensive partnerships including ones with Google.org, GE, Toyota, and America Makes who made contributions including cash prizes and loaned equipment. These contributions quadrupled VA’s investment in the series.  Designers, engineers, and other solvers contributed design solutions to the posted challenges. The VA Innovation Creation Series culminated in a 2-day “make-a-thon” event at the Richmond VA Medical Center where Veterans, makers, and clinicians co-created, built, and tested the designs to showcase how they meet the needs of Veterans. Designs of 150 assistive technologies and prosthetics for Veterans were created as part of the series; many will be open-sourced on the NIH 3D Print Exchange and available for the public to use and personalize to their own needs. [Leads: Andrea Ippolito and Melissa Oliver, VA; Meghan Coakley, NIH)

Trailblazer Award

  1. Sam Ortega, NASA: Sam has been instrumental, not only to NASA’s Centennial Challenges but to other government agencies.  He has been contacted by Veteran Affairs, NOAA, USAid, and other agencies for challenge guidance and recommendations.  He has also collaborated with Xprize on challenge development. He formulated and released for execution the Cube Quest Challenge, NASA’s largest prize of $5.5 million and NASA’s first competition in space. Sam has created a new standard for NASA challenges with the development and release of Cube Quest.
  2. Denice Shaw, EPA: Denice’s work on challenges represents the best in interagency collaboration. The My Air My Health challenge, in particular, was an ambitious technology challenge that identified and aligned strategic needs among multiple agencies. The Agencies involved envisioned a future in which powerful, affordable, and portable sensors provide people with a rich awareness of environmental quality, moment-to-moment physiological changes, and long-term health outcomes. Denice’s interagency collaboration made it possible to describe an interdisciplinary challenge looking for a solution to a problem that crossed traditional agency boundaries.
  3. Jenn Gustetic, White House OSTP: Jenn is one of the original trailblazers in fostering and feeding a growing community of innovators across government. She created a successful NASA prize program, now being replicated at other agencies, and at OSTP, she has been the catalyst to creating prize communities across different agencies, including DOE. While at OSTP, Jenn has organized a wide array of complex and impactful events and programs to support prizes, challenges, and innovation across the government.
  4. Sandeep Patel, HHS: Sandeep is the open innovation manager for the HHS Idea Lab and has been instrumental both in HHS and beyond. He has been a mentor to other agencies looking to explore the use of public-sector prizes to support their missions and has worked tirelessly to ensure the success of those endeavors.

Most Groundbreaking

  1. Cube Quest Challenge, NASA: This challenge is the definition of ambitious. Cubequest is NASA’s largest prize ever, with $5.5 million available, and NASA’s first centennial challenge that will be conducted in space. This challenge has a number of advanced design features: (1) It incorporates incremental competitions and milestone payments which award prizes during CubeSat development (2) It includes robust incentives in addition to the cash prizes including evaluation throughout the design process by NASA experts, and the opportunity for a secondary launch on a NASA rocket to the lunar vicinity (3) It included a team summit early in the registration process to encourage interaction with NASA, the FCC and other organizations (4) It’s going to be conducted literally “out of this world!”, pushing the boundaries of designing a fair and effective judging mechanism. (Leads: Mason Peck, Jason Crusan, Jenn Gustetic, Larry Cooper, Sam Ortega, Eric Eberly, Jim Cockrell, Kay Twitchell, Monsi Roman, Julianna Fishman, Kay Twitchell, and Dave Klumpar)
  2. Rebuild by Design, HUD: Hurricane Sandy caused unprecedented damage along the East Coast, and the Rebuild by Design competition generated innovative ideas from planners, designers and engineers that took into account the changing nature of our coastal environment. The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force launched the $2 Million REBUILD BY DESIGN competition in June 2013 to promote resilience in the New York metro region affected by Hurricane Sandy. This competition was groundbreaking in several ways: (1) It set new standards for community engagement, collaboration with state/local government partners, and in-depth research. The competition included the participation of 535 organizations, 64 community events, 141 neighborhoods and cities, and 181 government agencies. (2) The Competition is an example of a unique public-private partnership and represented a policy innovation by committing to set aside HUD block grant funding specifically for the implementation of winning projects and proposals. In June 2014, then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced the award of $930M to seven winning ideas. (Leads: Marion McFadden, Scott Davis, Henk Ovink, Kevin Bush, Laurel Blatchford and former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan)

Congratulations to all of the individuals, agencies and partners for helping to drive the scope, reach and impact of public-sector prize competitions. For more:

About Challenge.gov

In September 2009, the White House issued the American Strategy for Innovation, calling upon federal agencies to spur innovation and to tackle national priority issues with challenges and prize competitions. One year later, the Office of Management and Budget provided the policy and legal framework to guide agencies along this path, and Challenge.gov was born. Managed by GSA, Challenge.gov is a conduit for federal agencies to engage the public to offer solutions — whether in one-day hackathons or multi-year competitions — to address issues of national priority. Since its launch in 2010, more than 80 agencies have run nearly 500 competitions and awarded upwards of $150 million in prizes.

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