Where does innovation come from? For one answer, consider the work of MIT professor Eric von Hippel, who has calculated that ordinary U.S. consumers spend $20 billion in time and money trying to improve on household products—for example, modifying a dog-food bowl so it doesn't slide on the floor. Von Hippel estimates that these backyard Edisons collectively invest more in their efforts than the largest corporation anywhere does in R&D.
The low-tech kludges of consumers might once have had little impact. But one company, Procter & Gamble, has actually found a way to tap into them; it now gets many of its ideas for new Swiffers and toothpaste tubes from the general public. One way it has managed to do so is with the help of InnoCentive, a company in Waltham, Massachusetts, that specializes in organizing prize competitions over the Internet. Volunteer "solvers" can try to earn $500 to $1 million by coming up with answers to a company's problems.
We like Procter & Gamble's story because the company has discovered a creative, systematic way to pay for ideas originating far outside of its own development labs. It's made an innovation in funding innovation, which is the subject of this month's Technology Review business report.