The Bureau of Reclamation’s Research and Development Office is taking a unique tack to boost innovation: It has established a program of prize competitions on various topics, seeking to harness private citizens’ competitive instincts to advance the state of the industry. It has run competitions on topics including atmospheric forecasting, quagga mussel eradication, and canal safety, and pays out prizes adding up to as much as $800,000 in larger-scale contests. In this interview, Jennifer Beardsley, the office’s prize competition program administrator, tells us about the aims and results of this unusual program.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Jennifer Beardsley: I started with Reclamation in 1992 as a student in our Columbia–Pacific Northwest Region. I have worked in multiple Reclamation offices and gained experience in environmental compliance, resource and technical services, coordination, and special projects. I also served as a liaison in the commissioner’s office in Washington, DC. These varied experiences led me to my current position in our Research and Development Office, where I lead the creative, problem-solving prize competitions program.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Reclamation and the Research and Development Office.
Jennifer Beardsley: Reclamation, established in 1902, operates and maintains water and power projects in the 17 western states. Reclamation is the largest wholesaler of water in the country and the second-largest hydropower producer. The Research and Development Office advances Reclamation’s mission through investments in science and technology activities to more effectively address challenges in water and power related to environmental issues, operations and planning, the development of water supplies, and maintenance. These investments occur in three programs: desalination and water purification (research), science and technology (research, prizes, and technology transfer), and open water data. Prizes came into the mix for Reclamation in 2014 with the America COMPETES Act.
Irrigation Leader: How long has Reclamation’s prize competitions program been in operation?
Jennifer Beardsley: Our prize competitions really took off when we were approached by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which was seeking our partnership on a desalination prize. Our advanced water treatment research coordinator realized that this was an opportunity for Reclamation to tap into a community of problem solvers to work on areas we’ve struggled with for a long time.
Reclamation received its first appropriations for the program in 2014. With that initial funding, we were able to stand up the program; introduce an online water prize page, which highlights all our competitions; and create the business practices to ensure that we are adequately planning and funding our competitions and that they are aligned with our mission. We first launched a competition of our own in 2015, and since then, we’ve launched about 30 competitions and awarded over $3.5 million in prizes.
Irrigation Leader: How are the prizes for your competitions paid out?
Jennifer Beardsley: The prizes are paid directly to the top eligible solutions as determined by an evaluation based on competition criteria and subject-matter-expert input. They are prizes, not grants or loans. We gained some attention at the beginning by doing some short competitions that only involved the submission of a paper. The winners of those got no-strings-attached prizes. Now, the program has grown quite a bit, and many of the prize competitions have multiple phases. Often, they begin with a paper submission; then, we will select 3 or 5 finalists out of the 30 or so applicants and ask them to develop their ideas into prototypes that can be demonstrated and tested; and then we will choose an overall winner. We may award prizes at multiple stages of those competitions. There is no requirement that the prize money be used to advance the applicants’ ideas, but often, the winners want to do so in order to either commercialize or implement them. We still only award prizes to ideas that meet or outperform the criteria we set.
Irrigation Leader: Who owns those ideas? Does Reclamation take over ownership of the ideas that get to the finalist stage?
Jennifer Beardsley: In our competitions, the ownership always stays with the solver. However, in many of our competitions, one of the conditions of the prize is to give Reclamation a license to use the solution or the intellectual property. Even with that license, the solver still owns the idea and can do what they want with it. Reclamation is not set up to be in the business of commercializing these ideas. Our interest is in advancing the solution to the point at which we can develop it and put it to work for us, with the solver still owning it. It’s of even greater interest to us for solvers to develop and commercialize their ideas; eventually, we can become a consumer.
Irrigation Leader: In the case of the Canal Safety Challenge you’re currently running, how are the prizes distributed?
Jennifer Beardsley: The Canal Safety Challenge has two phases. Our three phase 1 finalists each won $50,000 and have received part of that amount. When they meet a further milestone, they will get the balance of the $50,000. We divided up that preliminary prize to keep solvers in the mix of the competition. The solvers can choose to use that prize money to create prototypes for the demonstration. At the conclusion of the second phase, there will be a demonstration and a final prize. The top performer, based on the criteria that we have set and on subject-matter-expert input, stands to win an additional award of $100,000.
Irrigation Leader: What was the impetus behind the prize competitions program?
Jennifer Beardsley: The impetus was spurring innovation. In some cases, we want to spur what is called disruptive innovation: providing a whole new way to do something. Often, we’ll do challenges for areas in which progress has stalled. That allows us to crowdsource ideas from the wider solver community and reach beyond our normal network of great minds. It’s a great opportunity to tap into the creativity that exists across disciplines. We’ve had great ideas come from people from all kinds of backgrounds.
Irrigation Leader: Do the sizes of the prizes vary depending on the scale of the competitions?
Jennifer Beardsley: We give a lot of consideration to the size of the prizes and the structures of the competitions. Our competitions are all different. In some, the total prize pool is as small as $15,000–$25,000; in others, it’s over $800,000. Generally, we try to size them to incentivize solvers to take part while also staying proportionate to the amount of effort that would go into the competition. We also carefully structure the competitions, in some cases with different phases, as is the case with the Canal Safety Challenge.
Our Subseasonal Climate Forecast Rodeo, which involved competing with the state-of-art practice benchmarks to predict precipitation and temperature patterns 3–4 weeks out and 5–6 weeks out, had a bigger prize purse that added up to over $800,000. Competitors were running their methods and submitting forecasts every 2 weeks. We paid out smaller prizes at that 2‑week frequency as well as awarding quarterly and overall prizes. That competition involved big data science, and it required a year of commitment to be eligible for the larger quarterly and overall prizes.
Irrigation Leader: Are there any limits on how many competitors can take part?
Jennifer Beardsley: We haven’t run into a situation in which we’re overwhelmed with submissions. The closest we came was when we ran a competition for the eradication of quagga mussels in open water and got over 100 submissions. Generally, the eligibility criteria and submission requirements by themselves limit the number of solvers willing to participate. A vendor helps administer our competitions, which helps when we have large numbers of competitors.
Irrigation Leader: How many groups participated in your recent Canal Safety Challenge?
Jennifer Beardsley: After the submissions were reviewed to ensure they met minimum requirements, our evaluation panel looked at around 17–19 proposals.
Irrigation Leader: What is Reclamation’s vision for the future of this program?
Jennifer Beardsley: It will continue to be one of several tools that Reclamation uses to try to resolve long-standing issues, get fresh research, and advance technologies and methods for potential implementation. We will continue to explore topics for future competitions and work with our communities to understand where we need innovation and how the prize competitions can be used to promote that. We need to all prepare to meet the challenges of the future, and as long as there’s a need to do things faster, cheaper, and better, prize competitions will have a role.