The eBay of science

If you're a scientist with some spare time to work on extracurricular projects, there's a company that wants to reward you with as much as $100,000.

Mar 28, 2005
Alison McCook

If you're a scientist with some spare time to work on extracurricular projects, there's a company that wants to reward you with as much as $100,000.

Here's how it works: An organization that relies on R&D, such as Eli Lilly and Company – which created the company, InnoCentive, as a spinoff – posts a challenge on the InnoCentive Web site Challenges are typically technical dilemmas that a company's own work force can't solve, such as "Synthesis of 3-difluoromethyl-1-methyl-4-pyrazole carboxylic acid" or "High-throughput format for a biological assay."

Rather than hire extra technically-minded staffers, companies offer one-time rewards from a few thousand dollars to as much as $100,000 to scientists from around the world who can find a solution. "We've been called the eBay of science," says Ali Hussein, vice president of marketing at the Andover, Mass., company.

Some 80,000 scientists from 175 countries have registered for free on the InnoCentive Web site, Hussein says. Last spring, for the first time, the number of registered Chinese scientists surpassed the number of registered American scientists. (The third and fourth most common nationalities are Indian and Russian respectively.) "No company is as strong as a global network" of 80,000 people, says Hussein. "It's the power of all of these minds coming together."

According to Hussein, since 2001 the company has distributed $1 million to problem solvers, and the Web site lists more than 60 stories of scientists who have mastered various challenges. On average, one-third of the challenges posted on the InnoCentive site are eventually solved. For companies whose own staff can't figure out the problems, "that's very good," he says. For its services, InnoCentive receives a percentage of the prize money, up to 100%.

David Bradin, a patent lawyer at Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice in Research Triangle Park, NC, says he solved a challenge to find a fast, cheap way to make the compound butane tetracarboxylic acid (BTCA) in a matter of "seconds." After reading about the InnoCentive Web site, he registered, saw the ad, and remembered a side reaction in tear gas he had to manage while working as an organic chemist. Using different starting materials, the same reaction would produce BTCA. He submitted the solution and won the award. "Literally, it took me five minutes to write it up, and I got $4,000," he says.

Once scientists agree to accept Inno Centive's offered reward, they sign over intellectual property (IP) rights to the solution seeking company. As a patent lawyer, Bradin knew how critical a role IP plays in every technical invention. He says he solved the challenge in his free time, but first asked his firm if they wanted the rights to it before he accepted the reward. They said no, and he says he doesn't regret selling the technology, knowing first-hand how difficult it is for one person to capitalize on an idea by finding the financial backing to test it and sell it to other companies. "The average guy can't get an audience," he says.

Drew Buschhorn is an undergraduate chemistry student at the University of Dallas, who recently won $10,000 for suggesting a company swap cyclododecane, a bioaccumulator being phased out of use by the US Food and Drug Administration, for glyccerin to protect art from oxygen damage. Like Bradin, he was discouraged by the logistics of launching a new technology from retaining the IP rights. "Would I have seen any money had I kept it" I think the answer is pretty clearly 'No,'" he says.

Hussein notes that scientists do not have to give up the IP rights to their inventions if they don't agree to accept the challenge's reward, but that "almost never happens."