World Wide Mind Meld

A new Web site offers cash for solutions to tricky scientific puzzles.

By Laura WrightApr 8, 2004 5:00 AM


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David Bradin, a patent attorney in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, seemed like a talented scientist forever lost to the world of research. He studied organic chemistry in graduate school and worked briefly for a chemical company but then headed off to law school and a new career. Still, he missed his days in the lab, so Bradin was intrigued when he heard about a Web site called that posts scientific problems and awards money for the best answer. Some of the questions, he found, could be solved with a pen, paper, and working knowledge of chemistry. One problem reminded Bradin of the processes he used when he had to make giant batches of chemicals; a solution occurred to him right away. For a moment, he was a scientist again.

Bradin dashed off a quick answer and forgot about it until a few weeks later, when he received an e-mail from InnoCentive, asking for further explanation. He wrote back in more detail. A week later, Bradin was shopping with his wife for a new kitchen floor, wondering if they could afford the $3,200 terra-cotta tile she had her heart set on. When the couple returned home, Bradin checked his e-mail and found a message from InnoCentive telling him he had submitted the best answer to the problem. His award: $4,000. Even for a lawyer, that’s not a bad paycheck for a few minutes of work. “I didn’t expect to work on anything,” Bradin says. “I just wanted to see what it was all about.”

Darren Carroll, CEO of InnoCentive, launched the company three years ago to confront what he calls “worrisome trends” in research and development. Costs are skyrocketing, he found, and productivity is stuck on a plateau. Carroll had been the director of new ventures for the business arm of Eli Lilly, and the company’s U.S. attorney for the antidepressant, Prozac, before turning to the Web to recruit fresh scientific thinkers. “We thought, if we find a way to intelligently broadcast the nature of a scientific challenge to the worldwide scientific community, we’ll be much better prepared,” Carroll says. Apparently, many research and development companies agree, including Dow AgroSciences, Procter & Gamble, BASF, and InnoCentive’s corporate sponsor, Eli Lilly and Company. InnoCentive charges the companies a relatively small fee to post challenges and collects a service charge for each one solved. Typical problems include finding a cheaper way to make a chemical in bulk or identifying a less-expensive alternative to a pricey ingredient. Solutions that can be worked out on paper earn anywhere from $4,000 to $20,000 while those that require the use of laboratory equipment and supplies garner $25,000 to $100,000.

Scientists who log on to InnoCentive’s Web site—more than 40,000 have done so since the company was founded—are as anonymous as companies posting challenges. As a result, there is no pressure to publish, and no fretting over wasting energy on problems unrelated to one’s daily work. Nobody cares if a nuclear physicist decides to take a stab at improving a process used in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I’m really not all that interested in learning the identity of the solver,” says Mark Zettler of Dow AgroSciences, an InnoCentive client. In fact, InnoCentive does not ask for any personal information from solvers—their age, vocation, where they got their degrees, or if they went to college at all. “The fact that people who are looking at the challenges are not necessarily experts in a particular field is a good thing,” Zettler says.

Some companies actually send out queries on the advice of their own scientists. They are seeking out the talent of others like Bradin—people who have the knowledge but are not present in the lab or even in the active research community. “We have more Ph.D.s than Stanford, Harvard and MIT combined, but we can’t solve some problems. Yet the solution already exists out there,” says Larry Huston, vice president of Innovation and Knowledge at Procter & Gamble. Zettler agrees: “When we post a problem, we’re hoping that somebody has an answer today.”

As Bradin’s experience shows, sometimes there is someone sitting at their computer, browsing the Web, who knows that answer off the top of his head. Other problems require quite a bit more effort. Werner Mueller, a retired chief of research and development at a chemical company who is now a consultant, worked for more than two months in his personal lab devising the most efficient method to manufacture a compound that he suspects is a chemical intermediary used in drug manufacturing (he was never told exactly what it was for). He ended up getting a $25,000 prize, “but it wasn’t the money I was after,” Mueller says. Although he started his career in a laboratory, Mueller was promoted through the ranks and ended up as the head of research, dealing more with budgets than beakers. “When I retired I said, ‘Now I can tinker again.’”

Bradin isn’t a tinkerer, but he too relishes the opportunity InnoCentive gave him to reconnect with his scientific brain: “It’s a rush when you have an idea in your head and a scientist in a lab can make it work,” he says.

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