Inside the launch of HeroX, a crowdsourcing innovation platform

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Wednesday, 20 August 2014 03:23 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

New platform allows anyone to launch competitions to solve local and global problems

“We’d love it if, in the future, someone reads the newspaper in the morning and as they read all the terrible things going on in the world, instead of feeling badly about them, they go to and launch a competition to solve it,” explained Emily Fowler, co-founder of HeroX, a crowdsourcing innovation platform that allows anyone to launch competitions to solve local and global problems. In an in-depth interview with Fowler, we discussed the launch of HeroX, the state of crowdfunding and prize competitions, what’s working and what needs improvement, and much more.

Emily Fowler is the co-founder of HeroX, a crowdsourcing innovation platform that allows anyone to launch competitions to solve local and global problems. In her career, Fowler has focused on her passion for driving transformations by creating a world of creativity and innovation. She has been the Director, Prize Development at XPRIZE where she designed incentive competitions and pioneered an open innovation approach to sourcing ideas called Visioneering. Prior to that, she was a strategist at Sid Lee, where she created award-winning brand strategies for adidas, Cirque du Soleil, and Redbull. 

Rahim Kanani: Tell me a little bit about the founding of HeroX. What motivated you to launch this organization last year and what are your ambitions for the future?

Emily Fowler: HeroX started out as an internal “skunkworks” project at XPRIZE in 2011. It was serendipitous, really. Peter Diamandis had had a vision of creating an “online prize platform” for a few years. Take a look at his video here.

Separately, I had joined XPRIZE in 2010 as a Challenge Designer and was also responsible for pioneering an approach called Visioneering, a creative two-day brainstorming process that attracts CEO's, philanthropists, innovators, artists, and entrepreneurs to generate world-changing ideas through the lens of incentivized competitions. It was during this time that I became immersed in the idea that the XPRIZE model could be extended to the world in a new and open way. After Visioneering, Peter approached me and told me about his dream of creating a “craigslist for competitions” and the journey began from there.

We were both drawn to crowdsourcing, and the way that it draws in minds, talents, and creativity to solve problems that seem unsolvable. After working on the idea for a year or so, we decided to spin it off in 2013 with our third co-founder, Christian Cotichini. An already-successful entrepreneur and natural leader who brings out the best in everyone around him, we asked him to be the CEO.

Our goal is to expand the awesomeness of the XPRIZE model; it’s meant to be a complement to it, whereby anyone with a problem they care about can launch a competition to get others to solve it. We wanted to create an innovation platform where it’s really easy for people with problems (and prizes) to match them with creativity and talent to find solutions.

It’s also about risk. Anyone who’s done innovation knows, you can’t have innovation without risk. It’s about trying on crazy ideas that may not work. Peter often says, “The day before it’s a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” We see HeroX as contributing to the world where crazy ideas are tried out and the ones that work are rewarded.

We’d love it if, in the future, someone reads the newspaper in the morning and as they read all the terrible things going on in the world, instead of feeling badly about them, they go to and launch a competition to solve it. We’re trying to change the relationship with problems - instead of complaining about them, we want people to feel empowered to get into action and to play a hero’s role in whatever way they can - whether it’s through putting a problem out there, funding a prize, or finding a solution. 

Kanani: Looking at crowdfunding and incentivized prize competitions more broadly, what's working and what's not working? 

Fowler: We love crowdfunding and we love incentive competitions. What’s working is that there isn’t a singular platform to go to to combine and collaborate on these types of projects and we’re creating it! There are definitely great platforms that tend to work within certain problem verticals, but our goal is to become the one-stop-shop for solving problems and creating innovation in the world. So far, we have over ${esc.dollar}2M in prizes, 4 live competitions, and over 50 challenge concepts posted.

Crowdfunding is great and we are seeing it applied in lots of different ways. Our prediction is that crowdfunding will become as ubiquitous as the e-commerce shopping cart. Instead of going to one site to use it, it will be a part of all online platforms, with interpretations, functionality and usage that is relevant to that particular case.

Incentive competitions work best when they are objective, measurable, and structured. Competitions that haven’t worked in the past have tended to be open-ended and generally loose in terms of the metrics they’re measuring. The power of competitions comes from the ability to break a large, difficult, typically amorphous problem, into one key “question” that people can’t wait to solve. For instance, the problem of poverty can seem daunting. But, if the problem is broken down into “Decrease the poverty rate by 10% over 18 months in the city of XYZ and capture your method for doing so,” it immediately triggers the brain to think in a new and creative way.

Projects on the notable crowdfunding sites tend to be low risk, meaning that the “innovation” (e.g. the Pebble watch) is already created and tested, and therefore the problem has been “solved”. Essentially, in order for someone’s project to be supported, the concept is already a winning one.

HeroX flips that model around and says that the money will be given when the innovation is created, but not before. HeroX inverts the model and offers the funding in way motivates the solution. People put up money and a problem and then they let the various solutions show up. We see an opportunity to use incentive competitions to minimize risk within problem solving and innovation because it allows for safe funding of innovation where the location of the solution is unknown. This is where the power of incentive competitions really comes in - sponsors/funders don’t know where the solution is but they have and as Peter has said before, “Instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, the needle comes to you.”

Kanani: As online collaboration tools continue to increase in sophistication and scope, where do you believe this is all heading, and how will these trends intersect with HeroX?

Fowler: This is a great question because it’s the innate environment of online collaboration tools, and their evolution, that has even made our current existence (or this idea) possible. People are getting together online to do great things.

When we talk about our product (being our platform) internally, we have a discussion about simplicity on a daily basis. It’s important to us that people can launch competitions in areas that they care about. We experiment with existing tools as well as whiteboarding to create never-before-imagined tools that are formed for incentive competitions and that unique use case. It’s all still very much a work in progress. The biggest shift has actually been in the way people interact with crowdfunding/crowdsourcing tools. The complexity is not in the tool itself, but in the range of activities that people have to do to make their campaign or competition successful. We're giving the world the ability to create their own incentive competitions and it's going to take a lot of work to be successful. Our platform needs to support that as much possible.

Millennials are digital natives. They never knew a time when you couldn’t just look up information online. Their natural way of being is to look up recommendations, opinions, friendships, and ideas, online. This is leading to a change in work culture (e.g. working from home, microtasking for pay, etc). The increase and sophistication of skills, as well as the desire to collaborate online, are leading people to self-organize and attack grand and complicated projects. This is happening faster and faster.

Our goal is to be a platform for people to self-organize around incentive competitions, specifically. In the way that Kickstarter began for artists, we want to be that for problem and problem solvers. We want to be the innovation platform where people come to compete, collaborate on, and solve problems. When everyone competes to solve a problem, everyone wins.

Kanani: What worries you the most about this enterprise, and at the same time, what gives you the most hope?

Fowler: What worries us the most is that historically, incentive competitions have been custom-made intricate, highly curated projects. Crowdsourcing, by comparison, is all about the smaller pieces, wisdom of the crowd, and letting the internet do what it wants without telling it what to do. The biggest worry is about how we will take the incentive competition model from this intricate structure and break it down into smaller pieces that the world can carry forward. Our business will work only if we get to scale and that requires simplicity and consistency. We need to effectively gamify incentive competitions to make it accessible broadly. Competition are, essentially games. So we need to strip it down to the core and go from there.

The other worry is the open innovation and incentive competitions, although not new within history, are new to the majority of the world in their use. They are an unfamiliar tool and it takes time to educate people on their effectiveness and application.

The thing that gives us the most hope is that everyone we tell the idea to, loves it. It means that it’s resonating with people. They are inspired and that, in turn, inspires us. The possibilities of what could be used for are endless.

We hold the belief that using open innovation - where the crowd solves very complex problems - will be the way that future organizations operate. This is going to become the norm. Waiting for governments to solve issues is absurd. We want to become part of the movement and trend where people will self organize and solve their own problems.

It will become a standard best practice in organizations in order to ride the ever-increasing rate of change. We feel this movement is inevitable; as the human race gets more comfortable with internet and as more generations grow up using the internet (much as the Millennial/Digital natives have done today), it will become a no-brainer to reach out to the internet, the crowd, the whole world, to solve your problems and to collaborate.

We hope to earn the right to become one of the common tools to do that.

Kanani: Finally, what are some of the critical leadership lessons you learned having spent several years at XPrize before venturing out to launch HeroX?

Fowler: Here the leadership lessons that we follow by on a daily basis: leadership is about holding a vision for the future, a possibility, even when everything around you seems to counter that. Leadership is about empowering people to solve problems. Leadership is about getting “out there”, and iterating rapidly, and taking the feedback and insights from the marketplace as raw ingredients for evolution. And leadership is about remembering that, “the day before it’s a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.”