History of challenge prizes

On the battle fields of Europe some centuries ago, Napoleon had a problem: how could he feed his troops when the countries he was invading were not able or inclined to provide food?

challenge prizes history

Appert canning jar By Jpbarbier Jean-Paul Barbier - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3

Appert canning jar By Jpbarbier Jean-Paul Barbier - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3

The power of prizes

The French military leader believed in the power of prizes to incentivise innovation and spur on scientific and technological development.

In 1795 he offered a reward of 12,000 francs to improve upon the food preservation methods of the time. Fifteen years later, he finally awarded the cash prize to a confectioner named Nicolas François Appert. Appert’s method of heating, boiling and sealing food in airtight glass jars is pretty much the process we still use to can and preserve food today.

This simplistic story of how prizes work understates the strategic and practical decisions that underpin their success.

To have a chance of success…

You need to reach, attract and motivate the right innovators to work on your challenge.

You need to encourage individuals or teams to carry the risks associated with working towards an uncertain reward.

You need to measure and judge performance and to lay the groundwork for the uptake of solutions beyond the prize.

You also need to understand why your challenge hasn’t already been met, and whether you’ll be able to create the right conditions for making progress through a challenge prize.


A prize can focus attention on an issue, incentivise innovators and unlock additional finance and resources for your challenge, but may not resolve deeper systemic barriers to innovation.

challenge prizes graphic

challenge prizes diagram

Making a comeback

Challenge prizes are making a comeback, as governments and funders look for better ways to solve problems, create value and exploit the opportunities presented by collaborative technologies.

Want to see some of today’s challenge prizes? See our prizes.