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The Power of Competition: How to Focus the World's Brains on your Innovation Challenges

06/06/2009 9:00 AM Wong Auditorium
Fiona Murray, Sarofim Family Career Development Professor

Description: Cooperation may be making us "a little bit too nice" when it comes to innovation, suggests Fiona Murray. She believes there's nothing like competition for injecting energy into the process of solving key innovation problems, whether in business or society.

Murray is convinced competition make ventures "more effective, more global, more inclusive and more democratic," all important dimensions for business in a flattening world. She describes the rapidly expanding R&D expenditures of India and China, including the vast numbers of Ph.D.s these nations are producing in science and engineering. The corporate sector has found building global R&D organizations and collaborations difficult. In this challenging environment, where the advantage goes to those firms snagging the best scientists, Murray believes "prizes are complementary mechanisms" for attracting global talent. Just like historic rivalries among great artists (Nb., Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese), or the race to discover the structure of DNA, "fierce competition" can yield "dramatic productivity" and innovation, especially when the right rewards are at stake.

Murray cites the 18th century competition to invent a mechanism for determining a ship's longitude, which offered a 20 thousand"pound prize. She jumps to the present, with the X Prize Foundation and its various competitions to solve engineering challenges and societal problems, such as the three"person reusable spaceship, and a 100"mpg car -- each with a $10 million prize purse. But it's not just the money. Recent studies show that prizes prove alluring when they focus efforts and resources on a problem that people are already studying, offering fame and "putting fun back into innovation." The fascination skews rational calculations, with competitors often spending well beyond the amount offered to the winner.

Corporations should adopt the prize mechanism, believes Murray, to help generate new ideas (such as new applications for Google's phone); or to help solve very specific problems. Campus competitions are up markedly, she notes, which might be a distraction for students at places like MIT. Start small and inside the organization first, creating a shared bulletin board and offering small prizes, she advises, which will "generate energy." Then take competition beyond the company. And don't forget, "the work must be fun" in order to "get a richer set of people to participate."

About the Speaker(s): Fiona Murray studies and teaches innovation and entrepreneurship with an emphasis on the life science sector. Her research examines how growing economic incentives, particularly intellectual property, influence the rate and direction of scientific progress among academic scientists. She also has a large project that uses modern bioinformatics methods to examine the patent landscape of the human genome and its implications for commercialization of genetics research. This research was recently published in Science.

Murray attended the University of Oxford, where she received both a B.A. and M.A. in Chemistry. At Harvard University, she earned her M.S. in Engineering Sciences in 1992, and a Ph.D. in Applied Sciences in 1996.

Host(s): Sloan School of Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

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