Sunday, June 17, 2007

Disruptive Innovations in Health and Health Care

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is sponsoring a competition called "Disruptive Innovations in Health and Health Care-Solutions People Want". The competition isn't directed towards a particular health or health care problem, but rather is generally directed towards solving problems in the health market where entrepreneurs could, with the right idea, improve characteristics that health care consumers experience, such as cost and complexity. The competitors submit their written ideas for review. After an initial review and selection of finalists, there is a voting process to select the winners. There will be 3 winners of the competition, each of whom will receive $5,000. They may also win up to $5 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help the winning projects.

The competition will be run by, which has already run several competitions in a similar way up to the $5,000 win phase in areas such as ending abuse (this one also with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with potential impact on their grant decisions) and supporting peace. Check here for more past competitions. There is another active competition on ending corruption. Upcoming competitions include another with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to find games that support health, sports for social change, and geotourism innovations sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

It's quite a different approach from those typically taken with the prizes usually discussed on this blog. The main goal of the various challenges seems to be to generate ideas - a kind of global brainstorming effort on different problems. As with other prize competitions, there can be considerable value even in the non-winners, since the ideas of all submissions will be available for the public to consider. The potential follow-on financial support in the Disruptive Innovations in Health and Health Care competition seems likely to be similar to a grant. In this particular case the traditional grant mechanism may be combined with the less-traditional prize mechanism in a 2-phase process. The prize helps select a better grant, but the grant may be invested without knowing whether or not the idea really will produce the desired results (whereas a well-written prize rule will guarantee that the desired result was achieved before the prize is awarded).

The other difference is that these competitions are to varying degrees directed towards solving social problems rather than technical problems. These tend to be much more difficult to measure or otherwise pin down quantitatively because they involve such incredibly complex and dynamic systems like societies and cultural organizations, so it is much more difficult to make progress with a prize in solving such a problem, or to even be able to tell if you are helping to solve the problem. Rather than attacking a social problem head-on with a prize competition, it may be better to choose a physical or technical goal that can be measured by competitors and prize sponsors, and that also addresses (in the judgement of the prize sponsors) the social problem at hand. This might work out particularly well for the Disruptive Health competition, since there are plenty of quantifiable challenges in the health care world (in pharmaceuticals, health information systems, and so on). The X PRIZE Foundation seems to be taking a similar approach to the one I described in attacking health and energy problems that are as much social as technical problems with the Genomics X PRIZE and the Automotive X PRIZE. The X PRIZE Foundation advertises that they have their eyes on prizes in "energy, environment, social, medicine, water, poverty, education, and space" concerns, so we will see if they continue with this approach in the fields that are more difficult to quantify.

As I said in a recent post, it's also good to have so many different types of prize competitions going on so we can find out which ones work, and under what circumstances they work.