Ignite Industry Innovation With a Competition

An attractive prize—cash, recognition, or even just bragging rights—could jumpstart innovation in your industry. Learn from several associations that have tapped into their communities' competitive spirit with innovation competitions. The rules vary, but the results are the same: the best ideas win.

In 2004, five friends had an innovative idea. Fans of the Xbox Media Center, they imagined a tool that would leverage the open-source software that allows Xbox users to play digital media on their television sets, but would push the concept further to bring web-based video and movie platforms like Hulu and Netflix to consumers' living rooms. By 2007, the five men had become a team of 11, and a company, Boxee, was born.

Countless technology companies start out this way every year, and few of them—even the ones that are born of great ideas—make it beyond infancy. For Boxee, the turning point came in October 2008, when the startup company was announced as the winner of the Consumer Electronics Association's i-Stage competition. The $50,000 purse that came with the prize was nice, but even more valuable was the opportunity to demo Boxee at the International Consumer Electronics Show, which attracts as many as 120,000 people every year, including 4,500 reporters and "every single executive from every retailer and manufacturer in the industry," says Jason Oxman, CAE, senior vice president of industry affairs for CEA. By the next month, Boxee had secured $4 million in financing.

Key Lessons From Innovation Competitions

Software & Information Industry Association
Competition: Innovation Incubator Program
Objective: To give exposure to early-stage, prerevenue companies in the software, digital content, and education technology industries.
Lesson: Aim for a win/win/win result: The participants, your members, and your association should all gain something from the process.

American Institute of Architecture Students
Competition: Ongoing series of design competitions
Objective: To encourage architecture students to continue on in the profession and to connect them with organizations and product companies in the field.
Lesson: Spend some time researching what other associations are doing so you don't overlap. Also, consider making the application and judging processes paperless. The financial and environmental impact of going electronic is significant.

National Association of Realtors
Competition: Game Changers
Objective: To cultivate and implement ideas that will help boards of Realtors and individuals in the industry do business more effectively.
Lesson: When developing programming like an innovation competition, ask yourself why you exist as an association. Do you exist just because it's a job, or do you exist to help your members? Answering that question can make you think radically, in a positive way.

American Industrial Hygiene Association
Competition: Breakthrough Prize
Objective: To explore solutions to age-old problems in the industrial hygiene industry.
Lesson: Don't get so wrapped up in the day-to-day matters of running your association that you lose sight of the fact that you should always be working to move your industry forward. Also, don't be afraid of the word "innovation." Remember that innovation is relative; what's innovation to one organization may be common practice to another.

Consumer Electronics Association
Competition: i-Stage
Objective: To enable early-stage technology companies to showcase their products in front of thousands of experts in the field.
Lesson: If you have many large companies within your association's membership, don't forget to think about the future: the small companies that will one day be large companies. Always look out for the next generation of innovation.

As the central hub of the consumer electronics industry, CEA uses its i-Stage competition to drive innovation. Many associations, just like CEA, have had success with this model, hosting competitions and offering prizes or other incentives for the best, most exciting, and most promising new ideas in an industry.

If your association is looking to ignite innovation and foster a competitive spirit within your industry, the competition model could be right for you, too. To help you decide, we've examined competitions launched by five national associations (see sidebar on right). The competitions are all at different stages of maturity—some have been around for decades, while others are still in their infancy—but they all shed light on the potential of innovation competitions to breathe new life into an industry.

Why Launch an Innovation Competition?

The genesis of every innovation competition is a spark of, well, innovation—a novel idea by someone within an association about how to move that association and its industry forward.

Inspiration can come from many different places, including the successes of others. "We hired [X Prize founder] Peter Diamandis to speak at our conference, and I said, 'This is perfect,'" says Peter O'Neil, CAE, executive director of the American Industrial Hygiene Association. "We have all these issues in our industry that people kvetch about, but we never seem to actually move them forward." Inspired by Diamandis' X Prize, the renowned, multimillion-dollar prize for projects that benefit humanity, O'Neil and his team developed the Breakthrough Prize to figure out how to "solve big issues positively" within their sector. [For more on X Prize and associations, watch this video of Marsha Rhea, CAE, president of Signature i, LLC, who presented on this topic at the 2010 Great Ideas Conference.]

Other associations are motivated by shifting challenges within an industry. The National Association of Realtors, for example, launched its Game Changers competition last year, in part because of the effects the economic downturn had been having on Realtors around the country. Open to all 1,500 of the association's boards of Realtors, the competition solicited ideas with the potential to increase professionalism in the industry, permanently change the way NAR did business, and help Realtors succeed in their increasingly challenging jobs. "If ever there was a time to reinvent ourselves as an association and do something at the local level to better help our members, this was it," says NAR CEO Dale Stinton, CAE.

Still, others launch competitions purely to foster the next generation of companies, products, and professionals within their industries. For instance, the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) and CEA both host competitions to give exposure to early-stage technology companies, while the American Institute of Architecture Students' ongoing design competitions offer financial support to architecture students to "motivate them to continue on in the profession," says Matthew Fochs, AIAS director of design and outreach programs.

Elements of a Successful Competition

If you're hesitant to launch a competition program because you don't know the "right" way to set one up, remember the one rule that defines all successful innovation competitions: There are no rules. A great competition can include many participants or just a handful, can give away a huge purse or no monetary prize at all, and can be administered, promoted, and judged in any number of ways.

What's important is to tailor the competition to the unique needs of your members and your industry. Consider these questions:

  • Who is driving, or has the potential to drive, innovation within your sector?
  • What incentive can you offer those innovation drivers to encourage them to share their ideas? Funding, press coverage, an opportunity to present at your annual conference?
  • How can you leverage your existing community—members, partner organizations, online social networks—to get information about your competition into the right hands?
  • Who are the thought leaders in your field who could help you develop or judge the competition?
  • In what ways can you tap into the innovations uncovered by the competitions to drive long-term growth and success for both your association and your industry?

The answers to these questions will vary widely association to association. A large, technology-focused association like CEA, for example, will want a very different program than a smaller association in a completely different field, like AIHA. The best thing you can do when designing a competition for your own association is to examine competitions run by other associations both within and outside of your field, borrow and adapt program elements that work for you, and invent new program elements as needed. Remember, innovation is the name of the game here!

Costs and Benefits

Online Extra: Fostering Innovation Among Your Staff

By Lauren Kelley

Competitions can be a great way to cultivate innovation in an industry, but they can also be used to foster innovation on a smaller scale, within a specific organization. Take, for example, the National Association of College Stores' (NACS) Sprit of Innovation Award, which was launched in 2007 to nurture and leverage creativity and promote an ongoing entrepreneurial spirit within the association's staff. Entries are eligible for a $2,500 grand prize.


The competition started an organization-wide dialogue about innovation. According to Sheila Giano NACS chief human resources officer, the association's employees no longer consider innovation to be only open to a few key people within the organization; they now see it as a common domain. The competition also helped foster interdepartmental innovations, with several entries coming from employees in different areas of the association who had ideas about how to solve interdepartmental challenges.

Lessons Learned

Some people do not consider themselves to be innovative, so taking the fear out of the word innovation is key. Innovation is not always a breakthrough; often, it's a series of continuous improvements needed to keep or give an association a competitive advantage. In NACS's case, senior management helped ease trepidation by encouraging employees to participate and share ideas and emphasizing their belief that allemployees are able to enhance, extend, and expand products and services and should be recognized for doing so.

Lauren Kelley is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Email: [email protected]

Sample Document

The competition model can be used to drive innovation internally as well. Staff at the National Association of College Stores can submit ideas for improving internal operations, and entries compete for a $2,500 grand prize. For a sample of NACS' Spirit of Innovation contest rules and procedures, see the "Staff Awards & Recognition Ideas" list in ASAE & The Center's Models & Samples collection.

Innovation Competitions in the Media

In January, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which operates its own innovation competition called the "News Challenge," released an in-depth study of 29 innovation competitions in the media, information, and communication field. Click here to read more on the project and the report..

It goes without saying that competitions don't run themselves. Like all programs, they cost something in terms of staff hours, finances, and other resources. Again, how much they cost will vary by association. AIAS is on the smaller side, devoting about one third of one full-time staff position to running its student design competitions, while NAR committed about $2 million to its Game Changers challenge in 2009. Both levels are appropriate for the respective size of the associations and the goals they seek to accomplish with their competitions.

Most important, all the associations agreed that the cost of running their competitions, whatever it happens to be, is money well spent. "It's a significant investment," says CEA's Oxman regarding the i-Stage competition. "There are significant staff resources and logistics involved. But it's well worth it for us because we want to focus our efforts on innovation and on our mission, which is to grow the industry."

Similarly, John Crosby, CAE, vice president of communications at SIIA, noted that the staff and volunteer time the association devotes to its Innovation Incubator Program is a sound investment because the program "is a benefit to the industry and specifically to our members who have expressed a desire to understand what's happening in the nascent sector of the business."

Fochs at AIAS outlined two other possible benefits of running an innovation competition. First, competitions give you the opportunity to partner with outside organizations and companies. AIAS, for example, looks to outside companies to inspire its design challenges and provide financial backing for the prizes. This approach helps meet a design need for the partner companies, helps the companies become familiar with the work of AIAS and its student designers, and introduces the students to products that they may use later in their professional careers.

Second, competitions can ultimately help your association increase membership and revenue. Although boosting membership is not the number-one goal of the AIAS competitions, the association does encourage students to join by offering members free entry into its competitions, while nonmembers pay a nominal fee. "If you plan to do more than two or three of these design competitions, it benefits you to join the organization, because you get free registration plus all the other benefits of our membership," says Fochs.

Crosby of SIIA says he sees his association's competition as something of a membership development opportunity. Through the Innovation Incubator Program, "we create a pool of companies that gain awareness of us," he says. "We help build affinity within the industry with companies that arguably could be the next Facebook."

It's also worth noting that competitions can significantly boost engagement among already existing members and help associations interact with their members in a deeper, more meaningful way, solidifying relationships in a way that can have long-term benefits for an association.

Benefits for Participants and Industries

Innovation competitions have external benefits, as well, for the individuals and organizations that enter the competitions and for industries at large.

One common element of the competitions examined here is a low barrier of entry for participants. Most feature low-or no-cost entry fees and have designed the application process (if there is one) to be as user friendly as possible, with the goal of encouraging participation and ultimately providing benefits for the competitors.

Within some competitions, those benefits are monetary, while others focus on providing exposure for their prize winners. If you don't have $50,000 in prize money to give away each year, like CEA, don't be discouraged. As AIHA's O'Neil notes, the dollar amount is often not the most important facet of a competition. "The size of the prize doesn't matter," he says. "What matters is that the prize is meaningful to that organization." For members of AIHA, what matters is "the kudos they get in magazines and at our annual event and getting to come present their ideas to the AIHA board—really being involved in the implementation of their idea."

For some of the younger competitions, it may be too early to tell what effect they'll have on their industries at large. Others, however, have already produced success stories. For example, a participant in an AIAS student design competition sponsored by furniture designer Herman Miller was offered a job with the company on the spot after presenting the winning design. And of course there's Boxee, which has now received a total of $10 million in financing.

For the bigger picture, innovation competitions also have the advantage of fostering a culture of innovation within an entire industry. Indeed, Stinton of NAR notes that well after his association's Game Changers competition is completed and the direct benefits have reached the field, "an inspiring culture of discovery and innovation will remain. After all these years at NAR, we never figured out a way to tap into that," he says, "and now we have. Imagine hundreds of boards always thinking about new ways to do things and sharing the ideas with you. You can't buy that kind of creativity." 

Lauren Kelley is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Email: [email protected]