3.12 Open Innovation Methods

Among the HHS efforts to further engage our audiences in transparent ways, we have promoted a variety of crowdsourcing and open innovation methods.  HHS recently completed its annual report on competitions and open innovation activities. Now in the fifth year since the COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (“COMPETES Act”), HHS has continued its prolific use of the authority to stimulate, solicit, and implement effective solutions to problems large and small. In FY2015 HHS continued to design and administer more complex prizes and challenges, using on average bigger cash incentives, establishing partnerships within and outside the Federal government, and tackling more ambitious and critical problems. The following highlight some of our major findings and observed trends.

HHS completed a total of 18 competitions and launched 7 more during FY2015, totaling $2.1m in cash incentives, more than doubling the total from FY2014. Competitions at HHS have continued to evolve, with increasing complexity of design and problem statements better aligned with programmatic goals.

Serial Challenges are Gaining Prestige and Demonstrating Impact

The NIH DEBUT Challenge and the NCI-supported Neuro Startup Challenge are instances of a series of challenges that have gained notoriety and prestige. A third series, the Climate and Health Innovation Challenge Series, was launched this year. All three of these challenge series are public-private partnerships. The DEBUT Challenge, now having completed its fourth iteration, seeks to challengebiomedical engineering undergraduate students to solve tough engineering problems, has become prestigious competition among biomedical engineering faculty across the country. In fact, many senior design courses now require developing entries for DEBUT. The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, DEBUT’s sponsors, have now created a partnership with VentureWell that will add additional prize money next year focused on the development of business plans and place enable greater emphasis on entrepreneurship.

The Neuro Startup Challenge built on the foundations of the Breast Cancer Startup Challenge, has built a robust community of students, investors, mentors, and inventors. These challenges have led to the creation of 27 new startups, trained over 1000 students in entrepreneurial skills, and increased the likelihood of taking NIH inventions to market. All the individual challenges have been run in collaboration with the nonprofit Center for Advancing Innovation, which has helped raise prize money from the Avon Foundation (Breast Cancer) and the Heritage Provider Network (Neuro).

The NIEHS Climate Change and Environmental Exposures Challenge, Esri’s Human Health

and Climate Change App Challenge, and the CDC Dengue Fever Project are part of a partnership between NIH, HHS, and Esri that launched the Climate and Health Innovation Challenge Series, aimed at stimulating innovation in understanding and addressing the impact of climate change on human health. The Dengue Fever Project was a product of an interagency effort that included CDC, DOD, NOAA, and others.

Piloting is an Increasingly Common Prize Design Element

As the ambition and scale of problems addressed through prizes and challenges has increased, so too has the need to equip participants with the momentum to continue work beyond the competition. In response, several challenges are include pilot phases, providing an opportunity for prototypes to be tested and therefore supported after the competition. ONC’s Market R&D Pilot Challenge was specifically designed for this purpose, asking health IT companies to partner with clinics to perform small-scale testing and validation of products in real patient environments. HRSA’s Bridging the Word Gap Challenge, launched in late FY15, also builds in a third pilot phase to test technological interventions solicited in the first two phases.

Additionally, several prizes and challenges currently in development are including a pilot phase. Both inter-agency and public-private partnerships are now more commonly used by HHS its prize competitions.  

Partnerships, formal and informal, are more commonly utilized by HHS in the planning, execution, and follow-up strategy. In some cases, such as the HHS RWJF Provider Network Challenge, the partnership was primary used for promotional purposes. In other cases, the partnerships were more complex and comprehensive. Over half the competitions completed in FY15 and three more set to conclude in FY16 used either an interagency or a public-private partnership model. Although partnership mechanisms varied considerably, they all enabled agencies to pool resources and increase visibility and overall impact.

As part of a Memorandum of Understanding with the UK National Health Service (NHS) HHS and NHS each ran concurrent, near-identical yet distinct challenges to create tools that leverage data to address the obesity epidemics. The U.S. version, the U.S. Obesity Data Challenge, was itself a collaboration among HHS, the de Beaumont Foundation (which provided the prize purse), and the Health Data Consortium. The parallel challenge model allowed collaboration with the UK government to amplify the message in both nations yet conform to requirements of the COMPETES Act.

Competitions are seeking impactful solutions to areas of high Departmental priority

The FDA Food Safety Challenge sought solutions that will directly impact how the FDA performs its regulatory duties. Both NIH (Harnessing Insights from Other Disciplines to Advance Drug Abuse, Innovations in Measuring and Managing Addiction Treatment Quality) and SAMHSA Opioid Overdose Prevention Challenge are seeking better ways to address the nation’s opioid epidemic. The U.S. Obesity Data Challenge, Aetna Foundation, HHS, and NHIT Collaborative Innovating for the Underserved Business Plan Challenge, and Bridging the Word Gap Challenge seek to address health disparities and stimulate health innovation directed and underserved communities.

Institutionalization of Prize Activity at HHS

HHS has always taken a customer-centric approach to the institutionalization of prize activity. Support for prize activity is therefore ultimately driven by the demand of those HHS offices which recognize value in the tool. The HHS IDEA Lab and the Assistant Secretary of Administration have collaborated on listening and responding to this demand from within the Department. Both aim to create safe spaces for innovation and prizes are one of the best tools available, an umbrella under which federal agencies and solvers can meet each other. In fact, 67% of competitions reported “engage with new people and communities” as a primary goal.

In part as a result of our broad outreach efforts within HHS, we have seen great diversity of usage among the 11 HHS Operating Divisions (“Divisions”). Additionally, exactly 50% of the completed competitions in FY2015 were affiliated with HHS offices with prior experience in running challenges. That suggests that those offices do not view prizes and challenges as a one-off novelty but rather as a tool worth investing time to use. Simultaneously, it shows that new offices are continuing to take a chance on this relatively new tool.  As in the past, we are using customer-centric approaches to identify remaining barriers to the use of this mechanism and crafting approaches that will directly respond to those barriers.

More Contract Vehicle Options

In 2013, we experienced a gap in challenge platform services due to the disruption of challenge.gov. We filled part of this gap by creating a common contract vehicle for prize management support and platform use. In the first phase, we made blanket purchase agreement (BPA) awards to three vendors, Luminary Labs, Sensis and its platform partner Skild, and Capital Consulting Corporation on the GSA 541-4G Schedule.

The vehicle has been used by HHS Divisions to create five individual contracts with vendors for challenge management services. One weakness in the original vehicle that customers identified was a lack of simplified access to cost-effective platforms without also having to buy expensive management services. To that end, we recently expanded the contract vehicle to include direct access to five challenge platforms, HeroX, Tongal, Health 2.0, Patexia, and Dept. of Better Technology. Additionally, we are exploring interagency agreements with other Departments to leverage other existing contracts with management service and platform providers.

HHS Competes Bootcamp Pilot

The novelty of the challenge mechanism still presents a steep learning curve for offices who wish to use it. In particular, the majority of likely sponsors have little interest in gaining expertise in its nuances; rather, similar to establishing contracts and grants, they seek to rely on the expertise of others to guide them. As a direct response to this observation, we piloted a two-week virtual bootcamp in July 2015 that provided HHS teams an opportunity to develop a prize idea in an accelerated, peer environment with access to mentors and experts within and outside HHS. We enrolled 11 teams initially, two dropped out, another two merged into one, and another decided to collaborate with one of the mentors. Two challenges have already launched. We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the participating teams, in particular regarding the access to both prize/challenge mentors and legal, policy, procurement, 508 compliance, and PRA compliance mentors. A full, expanded version is currently being planned for early 2016.

Community Engagement

In FY2015, HHS continued to increase the awareness of prizes among its Divisions by engaging in variety of site visits and presentations. HHS staff presented at several strategy meetings within HHS agencies, continue to play a heavy consultative role to program offices, and have cultivated an active network of mentors and experts.

Overall, we continue to experience growth and evolution in our use of the COMPETES prize competition authority. In 2016, we expect a significant increase in the total cash incentives offered, as several multi-million dollar prizes are expected to launch. FY2016 is also the last full fiscal year of the current Administration, and we are working to develop strategies to ensure that these tools continue to be readily accessible into the next Administration. As we move forward into FY2016 and beyond, we will build on the progress we made in FY2015 by continuing to expand the awareness of the tool within HHS and simplifying the process for sponsors to run a prize or challenge. In particular, we will focus on the following:

  • Simplifying the prize and challenge execution process
  • Creating a recurring bootcamp, based on the pilot run in 2015, that provides HHS offices with more focused mentorship and an accelerated peer learning environment
  • Continuing to increase participation among HHS Divisions in the use of the prize competition authority
  • Placing greater emphasis on the use of prizes and challenges to stimulate innovation in human services
  • Complementing the upcoming launch of a Federal-wide prizes and challenge toolkit (expected launch in 2016) by redesigning the content for HHS
  • Continuing to improve communication among program, acquisition, budget, legal, and leadership offices
Content created by Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)
Content last reviewed on August 16, 2016