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Prizing Innovation

Here’s something interesting: The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and its Economic Development Administration announced something genuinely fresh earlier this week--a competitive challenge grant aimed at calling out the nation’s best ideas for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship.

How cool is that? Now the nation has a kind of X-Prize for snappy ideas in new venture formation and one more instance of creative thinking on innovation from a federal government not historically known for it.

Here’s the deal: Entitled the i6 Challenge, the new challenge is a $12 million cross-agency innovation competition that will award significant prize money to each of the six teams from across the country with the most-cutting edge ideas to accelerate technology commercialization and new venture formation in their regions. The Economic Development Administration (EDA), the lead agency, will award up to $1 million to each of the winning teams. The other two partners, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes for Health (NIH), have both pledged to award up to a total of $6 million in supplemental funding to their Small Business Innovation Research grantees that partner with i6 Challenge winners. Working together, the three agencies will pool their resources to encourage and reward creative consortia of entrepreneurs, investors, universities, foundations, and non-profits to pursue groundbreaking ideas in technology commercialization and innovation in general.

As to the goal of the challenge, it’s all about strengthening regional innovation ecosystems with the ultimate purpose of driving national economic growth and job creation--an idea that frequently pervades this blog. To be specific, the i6 funding opportunity notice calls for proposals that model potentially transformative and ideally replicable ways to support regional entrepreneurs and innovators and eliminate barriers to commercialization. Specifically it calls on applicants to fill gaps in their region’s research-to-deployment continuum by leveraging existing regional strengths and capabilities and cultivating strong public-private partnerships.

And what’s especially interesting is the refreshingly open nature of the challenge. As Tom Kalil wrote a few years back, prizes that induce contestants to achieve a particular goal can be a valuable tool in stimulating innovation and out-of-the box creativity because the process leaves open which groups may be best positioned to reach that goal and which approaches may be most promising. In this case, instead of over-specifying who can play and how, the EDA program nicely avoids excessive prescription and leaves quite open who can apply and what they might propose doing, and so leaves room for truly fresh ideas.

All of which is potentially game-changing. If launched and implemented successfully, EDA’s i6 prizes point in their modest to a new vision of regional development (and federalism) that is: region-focused, skeptical of the old ways, catalytic, and--finally--assertive from the top yet simultaneously empowering. 

In our view, the i6 Challenge is another step in Washington toward a nimbler, smarter new vision of national and regional economic steerage. To its credit, the Obama administration has been steadily advancing a fresh new federal stance on innovation (laid out in its national innovation strategy) that places the creativity of regions, regional innovation clusters, and local innovation networks close to the center of thought about growth. Now, we hope Congress will embrace this attractive vision as it moves, through the reauthorization of the EDA, to better enable that agency to support 21st century innovation and economic competitiveness.