After the challenge: a look at open innovation outcomes

After the challenge: a look at open innovation outcomes

Innovation is a short and long game, and open innovation is no exception. While the explicit purpose of a competition is to surface a winner, we have found that success can extend far beyond the timeline of the challenge.

Case in point: PillPack, the online pharmacy recently acquired by Amazon for an estimated $1 billion was hatched at an MIT hackathon in 2012.

In conversations about open innovation prize competitions, we’re often asked about the winners and finalists of the challenges we have designed and produced — where are they now?

After conducting a survey of prize recipients of challenges we’ve designed and produced for our clients, we have found that almost all (92%) of teams continued developing their solutions after the challenge, with some partnering directly with the sponsor. Two-thirds of teams surveyed raised funding after the challenge. We conservatively estimate that prize recipients have gone on to cumulatively raise $100 million.

We recently reached out to eight of these winners and asked them to explain — in their own words — what happened after participating in an open innovation challenge.

1. Common Sensing

Common Sensing, a finalist in the Data Design Diabetes 2013 Challenge sponsored by Sanofi US, is commercializing the Gocap product they started designing during the challenge and recently closed a $6.6 million round of Series A financing. James White, co-founder and president of Common Sensing, says injectable dose monitoring for tens of millions of users is now a reality — thanks to user insights and connections the company gained during the challenge.

“The pivotal moment of DDD 2013 was the focus on the device user. We started the company in 2012 with the clinician first in our mind, which was a mistake. Since 2013, the patient-user and clinician-user approach has driven our success, and we owe that to DDD 2013.”

“We raised our first fundraising round … as a direct result of the publicity and corporate development out of [the challenge].”

“In 2013, we raised our first fundraising round from Qualcomm, Sanofi, and LSAN — I view this as a direct result of the publicity and corporate development out of DDD. All of these groups are supportive investors to this day, as we raised our Series A in March, led by Waterline Ventures. We have signed a groundbreaking deal with a drug delivery company, Haselmeier, to develop a new platform for smart injectable drugs. We have proven that Gocap detects many issues with insulin use for decision support and patient education at the Joslin Diabetes Center and at UMass Worcester. We are running pilots with major pharmas and diagnostic companies, and we have signed a development agreement with Flextronics for our next-generation dose monitoring platform — the commercial platform that can expand this technology to the masses.”

2. Smart Sparrow

Smart Sparrow, a finalist in the EdSim Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, recently received $7.5 million in investment from global education nonprofit ACT. Jacqui Hayes, product manager at Smart Sparrow, says the the two organizations are already accelerating work in learning innovation and assessment. “We’re collaborating to expand upon our shared mission: to help individuals succeed academically and make successful transitions into the career pathways of tomorrow.”

“During the EdSim Challenge, we built our first VR prototype of a learning experience for high school students. Smart Sparrow had previously focused on higher education institutions … Through the EdSim Challenge, we were connected to high school teachers and students to hear more about their experiences, and we worked to adapt the experience to suit a lower age group.

“These challenges tend to exist in order to influence where the market is going. If you are a small company relying on sources of income from challenges to build your product, then you’ll need to keep in mind where the market is currently. You’ll need to be able to sell your product as soon as possible in order to fund ongoing development beyond the challenge, or demonstrate to potential investors the value of your product. If you become a finalist or a winner, you will need to be super savvy about your pathway to sustainability.”

3. Osso VR

Osso VR, winner of the EdSim Challenge, also expanded the scope of its product as a result of the challenge. Justin Barad, founder and CEO of Osso VR (pictured at top), said that has led to rapid growth of the company’s team: “Before the EdSim challenge, we had a team of about 5, and now we have 15.” Osso VR has raised $2.4 million in a seed round of capital.

“The EdSim Challenge broadened the scope of our vision as we realized that educational challenges within the niche world of surgery were reflected within many other industry groups, affecting everyone from working adults to early education. This realization led us to alter our strategy to also seek partnerships with surgical education programs around the United States. We also have participated and advised the U.S. Department of Education … on challenges within higher education related to technical training. Our solution would absolutely be different had we not participated in the challenge.”

“Our solution would absolutely be different had we not participated in the challenge.”

“After the EdSim Challenge, as a part of this mission and in the spirit of education, we announced a partnership with eight leading surgical training programs all around the country. We are also working with some of the top orthopedic medical device companies to create training that alleviates device misuse and increases surgeon adoption.”


The Data Design Diabetes 2011 Challenge sponsored by Sanofi US prompted to think bigger as well. “In 2011 and 2012, we saw how smartphones could be used to to help people manage their emotional health,” said Co-founder Karan Singh and Chief Marketing Officer Christine Evans. “The challenge inspired us to take this a step further and use our technology to provide emotional healthcare for everyone.

“In our earliest days, we studied the habits of people and how they interacted with their mobile devices. As we dug into this, we further focused on what that data could tell us about our emotional well-being and how that information could help clinicians provide better, smarter, more effective care. Initially, we partnered with preeminent health institutions — Cleveland Clinic, Stanford, etc. — to see how our data could improve their level of care. Alongside this, we began building AI tools to help clinicians be more effective. In these early days, we learned that AI couldn’t be one-sided. The data was one side of the coin and the human-to-human element was the other. We’ve built upon our early origins and evolved into something bigger. For this reason, we now are focused on leveraging AI to enable coaches, therapists and psychiatrists to provide high quality emotional support access to our hundreds of thousands covered lives.”

“We’ve built upon our early origins and evolved into something bigger.”

“Since the challenge in 2011, has raised over $25 million in Series A and Series B funding, added up to 30 national and global enterprise clients, and launched nationwide coaching and clinical services. Our AI technology has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as a Technology Pioneer, and we were recognized as one of the top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Healthcare by Fast Company.”

5. Wellpepper

During the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, sponsored by Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, New Jersey, U.S.A., Wellpepper didn’t just expand its vision. The winning company also created a voice-enabled device — the Sugarpod scale and foot scanner. Wellpepper co-founder and CEO Anne Weiler says the company has a provisional patent for the new device and is in talks with Merck on opportunities to study the utility of the foot scanner with patients. They also frequently contact challenge judges for advice.

“Before we entered the Alexa Diabetes Challenge, we had already started experimenting with voice as a patient interface for interacting with their care plans and instructions outside the clinic. Prior to that, we engaged with patients using native mobile apps, SMS, web, and email. Early testing showed that voice was a very compelling interface.

“One of the hospital sites where we tested the voice solution has now deployed mobile diabetes care plans (voice is not yet HIPAA compliant), and we have voice-enabled all the tasks in our care plan. We’re also doing work with interactive voice response outside of consumer devices as well. We also launched our marketplace to share and scale best practices for interactive patient-facing care plans with our launch partner, Mayo Clinic. After the challenge, we applied for and achieved AWS Advanced Technology Partner Status, and are now working toward completing our healthcare partner competency.

“Our research partners at Boston University and Harvard have seen clinically meaningful outcomes, and are submitting the results of their studies using the Wellpepper platform to peer-reviewed journals.”

6. BiAffect

BiAffect, winner of the Mood Challenge for ResearchKit, a New Venture Fund program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is also seeing early results after launching its app in March. The University of Illinois at Chicago’s Alex Leow, who works with a team that includes John Zulueta and Faraz Hussain, said that by the end of June, the app had been downloaded 1,187 times and collected more than 4,500 hours of usage data.

After winning the challenge in 2017, “one of the most notable changes is the expansion of our study to include all eligible users of iOS products,” Alex said. “This has greatly expanded the volume of data collected and introduced new challenges in how to analyze these data compared to the more ‘controlled’ environment of our pilot study. We have partnered with Sage Bionetworks to help us with the backend management of our study app.

“Prior to the challenge, our team consisted primarily of researchers and clinicians based at the University of Illinois at Chicago as well as the University of Michigan. We have since expanded our team to include collaborators at other academic sites and nonprofits such as UCSD and the Child Mind Institute, as well as industry partners such as Sage Bionetworks, Motus Labs, Arbormoon, and Ntropy.

“We have maintained contact with the ResearchKit team at Apple, working with them to make tasks and visualizations constructed for BiAffect available to the wider developer community.”

7. Hats & Ladders

Hats & Ladders, a finalist in the Reach Higher Career App Challenge sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, has gone from zero to beta since entering the prize competition. President and co-founder Leah Potter told us the company, which didn’t exist prior to the challenge, is planning a wider release of its beta career exploration platform and companion curriculum this fall.

“We’re thrilled to be able to begin piloting the app — and testing the scalability of our business — with community-based organizations and schools in and around New York City that want to strengthen their career education programming with data-driven tools.”

“Before the Reach Higher Career App Challenge, Hats & Ladders as a company did not exist.”

“We have since developed a partnership with Boston-based public media powerhouse WGBH to create and distribute career-related media, especially on skill-building. They have also been instrumental in helping us connect with a range of stakeholders in Massachusetts and Rhode Island who are seeking accessible and simple-to-integrate career tools.

“Since the challenge, we connected with Roadtrip Nation and Sokanu but have worked most closely with Kimberly Reykdal — one of our school counselor mentors — and Code/Interactive, whose youth participants tested and provided feedback on early versions of the app. Kim continues to advise us on the development of our app, dashboard, and curriculum. We’ve also stayed in touch with some of the challenges organizers at the U.S. Department of Education and at Reach Higher’s new home at Civic Nation.”

8. Genetic Alliance

Open innovation prizes can help launch new companies — and can also sustain established innovators on their path to success. Genetic Alliance’s Registries for All Diseases, winners of the Collaborate | Activate challenge sponsored by Sanofi US, used prize money to get its core technology up and running. President and CEO Sharon Terry said “if we had not participated in and won the challenge, we would have been dead in the water! … We would not have had the capital to sustain us in those early months and year.

“Shortly after winning … we applied for and received a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. This allowed us to ‘white label’ the platform, providing a method for all communities to customize it to be a seamless part of their website and communications.

“We continue to work off and on with Sanofi. We do see the judges periodically, and have worked with several on some policy projects.”

Genetic Alliance has gone on to lead Community Engaged Network for All, a national clinical research network that was awarded $1.2 million in funding from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

Pay attention to the pitches you hear at demo day. An idea you see on stage at might just be the next open innovation unicorn.


Sara Holoubek
Founding Partner and CEO


Head of Content & Community