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EU to offer €20M in R&D prizes

According to an article published on Science|Business, there’s a long tradition of offering scientists prize money to solve specific problems. After making the first such payment – of €2M for a way of preserving vaccines without refrigeration - the EU is planning more prize give-aways.

Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The EU is to go ahead with offering €20 million in prize money to scientists who deliver solutions to pressing and seemingly intractable problems, after making the first such award under a pilot project launched in 2012.   

Future prizes, to be announced and issued in 2015, are expected to cover health, transport, energy and materials, and renewable biological resources, with the money coming from the Horizon 2020 R&D budget.  

 

If the 2015 challenges go well, subsequent prizes will be planned later in the 2016 – 2017 work programme. 

The challenge in the inaugural prize, launched in 2012, was to find a way of transporting and storing vaccines without the need for refrigeration. The winner was Ingmar Hoerr, CEO and co-founder of CureVac, a company that has spent 14 years developing RNA-based technology for manufacturing vaccines that are stable at ambient temperatures.

The success of the pilot will pave the way for future prizes in Horizon 2020, said Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General of DG Research, presenting the prize at the Innovation Convention earlier this month.

Offering prizes as a spur to innovation dates back at least 300 years, but until now has not been part of the EU’s repertoire. First to pose a challenge under the Inducement Prize Contests instrument introduced as part of Horizon 2020 was the Digital Agenda for Europe, which in November 2013 offered €400,000 for the development of Smart Cities apps that help run public services, and for the development of apps that help companies, particularly smaller ones, manage themselves better.

Earlier this month a second prize fund was launched under the Digital Agenda offering US$10,000 for the best ideas for promoting information and communications technology- enabled growth and job creation in the EU.

Democratising science

Prizes work in the same way as old “Wild West” reward posters, spurring activity by inviting people to join a particular search.  They attract the attention of the public by making a positive noise about an important issue. If the objective is chosen carefully, they can also deliver far more bangs for the R&D buck. In the case of the EU’s vaccines challenge pilot, 49 teams registered to take part in the project, a level of resource that would have cost far more to marshal through grants.

In addition, prize challenges are seen as having a democratising effect, with anyone eligible to contribute an idea, whether they have been in the field 30 years or 30 hours, are a kitchen sink scientist or a researcher at a global company.

Prizes are more attractive than traditional grants, according to Hoerr. “Both in principle and in practice, they are fantastic, [giving] researchers a free space to work in with no paperwork and no milestones. It’s nice to be allowed to have a free mind to concentrate on the research,” Hoerr told Science|Business.

That is not to say prizes are a substitute for conventional grants. “Of course, there’s the other side of inducement prizes – you take all the risks and only get rewarded if you are successful. In classical grants, you obviously have risk-sharing which is important because it ensures the money is there,” Hoerr said.

Whilst it’s good that the EU experiments with challenge prizes, there’s still plenty of room for other forms of financial support for researchers with good ideas.

Hoerr built his company from the bottom up and says outside funding is essential. “One of the challenges we faced was setting up a production facility. We invested money into clean rooms and, of course, faced regulatory hurdles.”

“IP protection was tricky too,” admits Hoerr. “I was a complete newcomer and didn’t have a lot of money to pay all the good people I had working for me. Hoerr wrote his first patent himself to save costs, because he could not afford a patent lawyer.

“After a while, I realised I did need some help in this area. We spent all the money we had on a good attorney and luckily, he’s still with us; he gave us a big discount and we paid him later. We learned that you can’t really save costs on IP,” he said.

Read more on Science|Business

 

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