Crowdsourcing innovation: Big bucks for group smarts, Flickr

There was a time not long ago when a company was only as innovative as the talent hired. Sparked from the inside, ideas were brainstormed, fleshed out, branded, and released as products. As elite talent becomes more disperse, companies are forced to become more progressive by crowdsourcing the innovation process.

No matter the process, crowdsourcing has gone viral. Multinationals, such as Kraft, Virgin, and GE, offer generous financial prizes for outsider innovation while nonprofits InnoCentive and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) built their own pay-per-solution model.

Back in May, EDF issued a challenge on their website: devise “systems to capture or concentrate nitrates from agricultural field drainage,” an initiative meant to address the fact that 50-80 percent of all commercial crop fertilizer filters into our air and watersheds.

Patrick Fuller, a 23-year-old PhD student at Northwestern, won $5000 with his solution: capture the runoff and recycle the nitrogen-rich water to grow algae, which in turn will be rendered as fertilizer. Fuller’s financial haul is tiny compared to Virgin’s Earth Challenge—an initiative that offered $25 million to anyone who could solve their “small” problem: reverse climate change by removing C02 from the air.

As America works to retain its innovative spirit and economic dominance, crowdsourcing will prove essential: a call-out to community, an open conversation.