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What are the rules, what are the criteria for innovation competitions?

Everyone loves competitions – but could they be better?  RANT ON. So what could be better than innovation competitions? Especially those that focus on improving quality of life for older adults? So in the face of these feel-good goals, here are a few laudable calls-to-action phrases from past competitions. From Aging 2.0: "quality of overall concept, viability of product or service" and "impact on the aging experience – potential to improve quality of life for older adults, caregivers, and/or revolutionize the aging services industry." From Stanford Longevity Design Challenge:  "Create well-designed, practical solutions that address key issues associated with aging." From a CAST/Leading Age student competition: "Transform existing products or create new ones that would appeal to middle-aged adults. Students in gerontology, engineering, business, industrial design, architecture and social work are especially encouraged to participate."  

Competitions encourage boomer-senior product and service innovation.   These events are motivators -- they can get startups moving and industry veterans moving forward. Some set limited goals to get the submissions, judging them with an expert panel who base assessments on criteria like above. Judges then discuss (or vote on) submissions received. Sometimes prospective submitters can examine a more detailed sets of rules/criteria, as can be seen online with the recent Silicon Valley Boomer Venture Summit. Much can depend on the charm and speaking skill of the presenter – a brief bad pitch for a good product or vice versa can create a result that could advance or stall the cause. So could competitions be improved -- yes, largely through better documentation -- before and after.

Sharpen and communicate judging requirements. For starters, all multi-year competitions should have a recap section of their website that is updated for each event – what happened with last year's winners?  Are the judging criteria appropriate – or do they need work? Organizers want submissions that matter. But what matters most?  The imagination, reach and newness of the idea (as with Making More Health) and how it adds something perhaps not yet seen? Or is the quantifiable market opportunity, the business potential for the concept that is the most important factor? Or is it both?  If it is the former, then the competition is really a social occasion, a party for innovators. Startups try out a concept, meet others from an industry, and learn what might or might not be useful – organizers get to see/hear about ideas and smart people they might otherwise not know.  If something turns out to be viable in the marketplace, then so much the better – and lucky.

If market viability is the goal, then the event must highlight market awareness. Somewhere along the global and the market opportunity spectrum, consider market viability as critical for all boomer-senior businesses. It is an industry where success criteria and historical track record are not well-documented. Is the offering going to succeed where predecessors failed? And who are those predecessors? Market viability can be more narrowly defined up front: the competition's best outcome is when investors provide the submitting firm enough money to expand to a next stage. Good, that's market viability's next step, but that step sorely needs a recap – whatever happened with that company last year and why? If it wasn’t a viable market, what was learned?  Was entry into the market too early? Was the product too expensive? Or was there no demonstrable market at all? Why not step up the effort to communicate learnings? And no, schmoozing at next year’s event does not count as communication. RANT OFF.


Market awareness is usually ignored at these competitions, yet as you correctly point out, it is key to success. Products do not sell themselves, and the better mouse trap does not always win. Design, branding, awareness and (critically) distribution strategies and channels should be emphasized more.

Yes, we can all learn from "what happened to last year's winners" -- was there product/market fit, did the distribution work, how did the company proceed vs. the pitch? And, are these competitions efficient at picking winners in the marketplace?.

Rant on: Some of these pitch events are business-entertainment. Some present ideas trod out for several years in a row (at different events). And some present well-established companies as "startups." Rant off ;)


I think your rant points to the need to be crystal clear about the goals of the competition.  Speaking for the Stanford Longevity Challenge (which I direct), our goal as an educational institution has always been first and foremost to draw students into learning about longevity issues as a market and engaging in a practical way. We certainly hope that new ideas result in products, and as we saw with Eatwell in our first year the competition can help with visibility, but if we pull a talented group of young people from around the world  into the field, we have met the primary directive.

In your blog you stated the first of three goals from the challenge website (create solutions).  I think it's worth including the other two here:

- Encourage a new generation of students to become knowledgeable about aging issues

- Provide promising designers with a path to drive change in the world

I think we will consider changing the order of these to emphasize the point.