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Eyes on the Grand Innovation Prize

Fiona E. Murray

Fiona MurrayFiona Murray is the David Sarnoff Professor of Management Technology; an Associate Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management; and the Faculty Director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship

Grand Innovation Prizes (GIPs) are large monetary rewards set up by governments and private institutions to stimulate radical breakthroughs that solve society’s most pressing problems. They have existed for centuries: In the 1790s, the British Parliament rewarded Edward Jenner for his vaccine inoculation; in the early 1800s, it rewarded Henry Gateshead for the lifeboat. After falling out of fashion, prizes made a brief return to prominence at the start of the 20th century when Charles Lindbergh won the 1927 $25,000 Orteig Prize (established by the wealthy New York hotelier), for becoming the first aviator to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. However, for most of the 20th century, governments Eyes on the Grand Innovation Prize and others concerned with ensuring a robust stream of innovation breakthroughs relied on market-based rewards, such as patents, or on procurement and grant programs.

Over the past 17 years, GIPs have re-emerged, initiated in part by the success of the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, which was established in 1996 by the X PRIZE Foundation to reward the first private vehicle to launch a reusable manned spaceship into space. In 2004, Spaceship One—funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—was declared the winner.

Recognizing the role of government in the prize landscape, President Barack Obama released the 2009 Strategy for American Innovation, which was closely followed by a memorandum from the Office of Management and Budget encouraging government agencies to harness innovation through prizes and challenges.

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