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August 24, 2009

ChallengePost: Improving and Inspiring Innovation

Can you come up with a better word for ‘lifestyle business’? Or design an iPhone app for entrepreneurs? Brandon Kessler ’07 and Stephen Baker ’07 have launched an online platform where problems get submitted and solved — by you.


 

In June, Brandon Kessler ’07 and Stephen Baker ’07 launched ChallengePost, an online marketplace for challenges — unsolved problems released to the public with a prize reserved for the solver. Recently featured on Forbes.com, the company has already raised more than $500,000 in seed capital from such investors as technology visionary Esther Dyson, and counts Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak on its board of directors.

Kessler, the company’s CEO, is no stranger to entrepreneurship: by the time he entered the School’s Executive MBA Program, he had been running his own record company for more than 10 years.

The challenges range from coming up with a better word for ‘lifestyle business’ to creating the ultimate iPhone app for entrepreneurs and genotyping the astronauts. Some prizes are non-monetary while others earn the solver more than $10,000 (for wireless, anonymous and encrypted mobile Internet access). So how does it work — can anyone post a challenge or try to solve one?

That’s right. If it’s an “open” challenge, then other users can join the challenge and contribute to the pledges for that challenge with money or declarations of why it is meaningful to them. The pledges inspire others to solve the challenge and earn money, status and recognition. Solvers receive public thank-you notes that appear on their profile pages along with the names of those whom they’ve helped and why.

Our site is about solving any kind of problem — that’s its value for corporations. We just signed a deal with Deutsch, the ad agency — they’ll use the platform internally. We’re also talking to local and federal agencies about releasing challenges to the public.

How’d you come up with the idea?

In 2006, I followed a project called the Windows on a Mac competition: a kid posted a challenge on his blog to create software that allows Windows to run on a Mac. He said he’d give the solver $100 and posted a PayPal link so that anyone could add to the jackpot. It was all over the press. Hundreds of individuals and corporations contributed to a total of $14,000 and the software solution was created in three weeks. As a marketer, I was blown away by the power of a challenge to identify a problem and increase the efficiency by which it gets solved.

I started doing some research and it turns out that there’s a long history of challenges driving innovation. Napoleon issued a challenge to preserve food and in response someone invented the vacuum by sucking air out of a champagne bottle. Napoleon also asked for a butter substitute, which led to margarine.

What convinces you that ChallengePost will inspire people to solve longstanding problems?

Studies show that solvers are motivated not just by money but also by status and recognition, the competitive spirit, altruism and intellectual stimulation. Public recognition is really important to a lot of people, as it should be. Research also shows that most problems are solved by people outside the field of interest: problem-solving numbers increase dramatically when there is a diverse and open network of solvers.

Public challenges are increasingly popular. In June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced an annual competition that awards cash prizes to Web developers who come up with innovative software applications using city data. These are the kind of challenges that ChallengePost would like to run. What we’d do is allow for a middle group of people to get involved: maybe one person can’t solve the problem, but what about 5 million people who think that transparency can really help the city? Maybe they can sign up to say “I want this solved too” — it’s those people who can drive change. The solver can win money, but also help 5 million New Yorkers. No other platform allows that middle group of people to join.

Is there a challenge online now that speaks to you personally?

There are a lot of fantastic challenges. For example, there’s a challenge to develop a portable milk purity detector. It turns out that contaminated milk is a big problem in developing countries, where small dairy owners unsupervised by government authorities distribute milk that can be contaminated.

What really inspires me is improving innovation in general. The fact that people can get problems solved through our platform is what excites me the most. If you want something that doesn’t yet exist, we want you to go to ChallengePost. The resources are out there to make it happen.

 

 

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