THE BLOG
11/22/2010 10:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Competitions Galore: And the Winner Is...

TV game shows may have declined in recent years, but idea contests are riding a wave among big corporations. Competitions often arise when problems loom large and times are tough, so no surprise they are currently on the uptick. Encouraged by the ease and success of cloud computing and crowd sourcing, many major corporations see competitions as a spur to innovation, solving problems big and small.

Consumer companies have jumped into the fray with both feet. Starbucks has its "My Starbucks Idea" invitation, asking customers and employees to suggest ideas "revolutionary or simple," resulting in something as basic as a new flavor or as practical as a domed lid on its cups to house the whipped cream. Procter & Gamble is reaching out through its Connect & Develop program to "accelerate innovation" globally through partnerships with small companies to add value to P&G products.

Last month PepsiCo took a novel approach by selecting ten start-up companies, which represent emerging technologies, to pair up with a PepsiCo brand. The goal for PepsiCo is to find innovative ways to connect with consumers, while the winning start-ups get the opportunity to scale up quickly. One of the ten winners, of more than 500 entries, is CEO Tracy Brown of year-old Evil Genius Designs, a company that provides mobile games for people waiting in line at various venues, like the movies. Her selection by Pepsico, she says, "put us on the map with an opportunity to partner with a marquee branding company; it will help us refine and position our company; on my part, I will share my digital gaming experience to help Pepsi connect in new ways to its consumers.

And GE scaled big this summer by announcing a $200 million Ecomagination Challenge to innovate the best ideas in smart grids, clean energy and eco-friendly homes and buildings. In four months the challenge brought in close to 4000 entries, including some strong women contestants. The first $50,000 prize, selected by the "Challenge community" went to Idaho-based, Julie and Scott Brusaw, who created a company called Solar Roadways. Their idea is to create roads out of solar panels, with LEDs added for light and heating elements installed to melt snow, all powered by the sun. Engineer Scott Brusaw credits his wife Julie with coming up with the idea while standing in their garden one day. "We engineers" Scott says, "think small, but she thinks big and has helped me bring this idea to prototype by securing a Federal grant."

Who are the women who enter these corporate competitions? Pretty much like all innovators, they are fearless and creative in their approaches to big problems. One member of the group, called the GE100, consisting of 100 interesting ideas from among the Ecomagination Challenge entrants, is Laura Bailey, CEO of Royal Wind Turbines. After learning about the "removal of mountain tops" by coal mining when she was living in Appalachia, she and her husband, neither of whom are engineers, developed a revolutionary vertical axis wind turbine "because we felt there had to be a better way." Now relocated to environmentally friendly Colorado, Laura Bailey says her "shrouded dual turbine generators" are ideally suited to high wind areas such as coastal regions; furthermore, they can be mass produced for considerable cost savings and are easier and cheaper to maintain." Next stage: to raise funds to build a prototype.

Another member of the GE 100 Club is Dr. Barbara Pause, a career physicist with more than 40 patents, who has developed a hybrid alternative to current solar systems through her company Textile-Testing. Her invention consists of a flexible fabric coated with energy absorbing material underneath solar cells which absorbs heat, thus cooling the solar cells embedded in the material, to make them run more efficiently; in addition, the absorbed heat is then used to heat water. Instead of the current rigid and expensive solar panels, her lightweight, flexible fabric, says Dr. Pause, is "80% cheaper and has potential use for residences, commercial buildings, greenhouses and emergency shelters."

But often too few women compete for the biggest prizes. The most highly recognized leader in fostering innovation through major competition, non-profit X PRIZE Foundation, is on the case. Their goal is to find radical breakthroughs in exploration, life sciences, energy and environment, education and global development for which the incentive is a cool $10 million reward! According to Claire Milonas, senior X PRIZE advisor who is currently creating a New York presence for the Foundation, admits "we are very definitely interested in having more women entrepreneurs lead our prize winning teams." One problem, she suggests, may be access -- getting the word out to the kind of outlets that attract women. Another potential spur X PRIZE is considering, says Claire Milonas, is to offer "a bonus purse if the winning team is led by a woman. This incentive is similar to the $2 million dollar bonus offered by the State of Florida for those Google lunar X PRIZE teams who launch their robotic vehicles from Florida."

Sometimes it takes an extra push to play with the heavy hitters.