Eyes on the prize can spur innovation and the development of new industries

Capturing the attention and enthusiasm of the public can do much to drive innovation throughout the economy at large

I was in a reflective mood as I sat with my back against the white concrete dome in the middle of Derrigimlagh bog in Connemara. Overhead jet contrails surfed across the sky, while on the ground right here history was made just 99 years ago when John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first non-stop flight from America to Europe.

Alcock and Brown thus won a £10,000 prize put up by the Daily Mail newspaper in London for the first successful transatlantic flight.

The Daily Mail was a pioneering sponsor in global aviation in the early part of the 20th century. Louis Bleriot won its £1,000 prize in 1909 for the first cross-channel flight between France and the UK. In 1930, Amy Johnston won £10,000 from the media company for the first solo flight from the UK to Australia.

Meanwhile in 1927, Charles Lindbergh won a $25,000 prize set by a French hotelier, Raymond Orteig, for the first transatlantic flight between New York and Paris.


Competitions have long been used to spur innovation and the development of new industries.

In 1714, the British parliament passed the Longitude Act to award a £20,000 prize to solve the challenge of accurately computing longitude for oceanic navigation. A self-taught Yorkshire clockmaker, John Harrison, eventually won, and then became the equivalent of a multi-millionaire in the last years of his life. His chronometers were expensive though: up to 30 per cent of the total cost of a naval ship.

Likewise in France, Nicolas Appert also founded an entire new industry in 1810. He won a 10,000 franc prize set by Emperor Napoleon to preserve food, particularly at sea, thus establishing the sterilisation and canning industry.

Benefit humanity

In 1995, Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneur, founded XPRIZE as a not-for-profit organisation supporting public competitions, particularly to spur innovation that may benefit humanity.

Various XPRIZEs have been set, and most won, for competitions as diverse as ocean acidification, highly fuel-efficient cars, healthcare sensors, the clean-up of seawater oil spillage, and Star Trek "tricoder"-style health diagnosis devices.

The Ansari XPRIZE set in 1996 for the first private spacecraft to reach 100km altitude with at least three passengers, twice in two weeks, was won in 2004 by Mojave Aersospace Ventures with its SpaceShipOne craft.

Then just last month an Irish team of students won an innovation prize on their first attempt at the SpaceX Hyperloop student challenge in California. They also came fifth out of 20 finalists (and out of over 700 entrants worldwide) for the highest attained speed.

Almost 10 years ago the Innovation Taskforce, on which I served, made many specific proposals to revitalise innovation in the Irish economy. Arguably many of these recommendations have subsequently made their impact on inspiring the creation of startups, and on collaborations between multinational and indigenous companies.

However, one element which has yet to be fully explored is what we termed “flagship” projects. We envisaged a series of calls, by open competition, for innovative and collaborative projects which would clearly benefit Irish society, have global potential in terms of market opportunity, and which would solve challenges for which there was hitherto no solution anywhere else.

Judging panel

As our report was being published, Martin McAleese promoted Your Country, Your Call with a €100,000 prize. Over 9,000 entries were submitted nationwide to the competition website, ultimately leading to two projects being selected by the judging panel.

In the event, the two projects were then merged into one with the objective of incubating an international services centre for payments and rights for the international distribution of digital content, based on data centres. The overall initiative, particularly in terms of benefit to society at large as well as to the economy, was, however, not quite what the Innovation Taskforce had envisaged.

The Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has recently issued its first open and competitive call for submissions to its €500 million Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund (DTIF). An entry should propose a large project of up to three years in scale and impact, and a likely budget of between €5 million and €10 million.

An entry must involve participation by at least one small and medium enterprise, and collaboration with the Irish academic research community is strongly encouraged.

The DTIF initiative is explicitly to strengthen the economy through innovation and appropriate skills. Successful projects should significantly alter global markets and make a positive impact on the way in which businesses operate. They should help position Ireland as a global centre for pragmatic collaboration, opening up entirely new industry initiatives around a pool of exciting startups.

Competition guidelines

Nevertheless, the potential benefits to Irish society (and, indeed, to humanity worldwide) are apparently not particularly emphasised as requirements in the competition guidelines. In a time of competing pressures and expectations for investment from the public purse I believe it would be prudent to explain what an outcome of a successful project can mean for the quality of life of the general public.

Capturing the attention and enthusiasm of the public can do much to drive innovation throughout the economy at large, and yield even more political support for investment in Irish technology leadership.

Submissions for the DTIF must reach the department by 3pm on Friday, August 17th. I sincerely hope we will all be inspired in due course by the successful entries.