Innovation competitions: why we need more of them

We’d all be forgiven for imagining that TechCrunch Disrupt and the DEMO Conference were the only regularly held innovation competition events worth talking about, as far as the tech media were concerned. So imagine my surprise…

…when I turned up at an innovation competition which I had never heard of, primarily because, as far as I could tell, it had no coverage in any of the usual places that report on the startup scene.

“So what?” You may ask, “I’ll bet the prize was much smaller than the TechCrunch Disrupt Cup‘s $50,000”. And I’ll bet the whole thing was run on a shoestring, the venue was in the middle of nowhere and the entrants were mostly no-hopers.

Well, let’s see now: it had multiple prize funds amounting to over three quarters of a million dollars, with individual future prize funds targeting five million dollars, so I expect I now have your full attention.

In addition, this event was pretty big, with an impressive list of ‘household name’ participants from the fields of Venture Capital (including Kleiner Perkins) industry (including BAE Systems) and numerous notable government representatives from the UK, US and EU to name but three (and there were more).

It had regional finals held far and wide (US, Australia and London) and the finale that I attended was a culmination of four different full-scale international innovation competitions.

It was called PitchLive London 2011, hosted by OmniCompete on the 24th and 25th of October at the Business Design Centre.

I have done a ‘scorecard’ type of review of it here.

Despite all this, I have to admit I was still quite sceptical at the outset. I was asking myself: is this really going to (as Steve Jobs advocated, in the context of innovation) ‘put a ding in the universe’?

Are innovation competitions really where the action is? Although I am still a bit reticent about answering that question, I have to say this: aspirations among the general public towards being a participant in the startup scene are still way, way below their real potential, and I’m convinced that this is as a result of a ‘cultural vacancy’ (i.e., it’s not an issue in Silicon Valley).

Can this particular kind of competition on its own fully address this problem? Of course not.

But the essential service that competitions like PitchLive unquestionably perform is to provide a platform for legitimising participation among larger organisations (as sponsors, investors and proponents of startup based innovation) rather than merely leaving ‘lip service to Open Innovation’ as the Minimum Viable Product of those organisations’ Innovators Dilemmas.

My scepticism regarding ‘new kinds of startup competitions’ is beginning to fade.

I’m not sure that there is anything ‘better’ than startup competitions, as far as raising awareness of the under-subscribed and largely untapped value that ‘startup facilitation’ represents, but I do think that there needs to be a (much?) wider variety of different kinds of startup events, and the fact that this one has quite a different ‘feel’ to the ones that currently get most of the attention is definitely a good thing.

My view from here onwards? Bring ‘em on.