By Simon Schneider A STRONG relationship between science and economic growth is a fact of life in globalised society. Even so, it is the nature of most governments to want to see short-term economic results to justify investment, and, especially in the west, to justify not taking an axe to research. To stay safe from severe cuts, the kinds of science that can deliver relatively fast have no choice but to do just that. One stumbling block, however, is that the system for funding commercial science is not set up to create the short-term wins government will demand. The pressure is on researchers with ideas that address problems (or exploit opportunities) involving national security or global warming, which can be quickly commercialised. This isn’t easy for two reasons. First, researchers often have trouble getting the ear of investors because they often lack the ability to sell their ideas strongly enough. And even when they do, non-academic funders, largely private investors, often lack scientific expertise and can be reluctant to support ideas they don’t understand. Funding for commercial science is not set up to create the short-term wins government will demand We urgently need to create a better environment for complex, world-leading science to attract private investment, in which investors feel comfortable buying into science. One way to address this could be to use competitions that invite solutions to broad global problems, where researchers working in industry are invited to pitch their solutions to expert panels, and the most relevant and viable ones are given access to funding and support. The effect would not be dissimilar to the support provided for academic research by the research councils. This idea came to me after some years at IBM, where I noticed the commercialisation problem in the field of security. Both business and government were crying out for new technologies to help them and both were prepared to invest in them. At the same time, many people with great ideas were struggling to get heard and, where they were, investors often didn’t have the confidence to invest. I left IBM and set up Global Security Challenge, a London-based company dedicated to running competitions all over the world designed to attract the best ideas in security. We approached the US Department of Defense and it agreed to pick up the tab for an annual prize. For our first competition, we invited scientists and technologists to offer their solutions to any problem in security: all good ideas were welcome. The format was and is rather like television’s Dragon’s Den (Shark Tank in the US) where researchers, spin-off companies and small businesses pitch their ideas to a panel of security experts, who select the ones with the most potential. These go on to compete in the final for the DoD’s $500,000 in investment and mentoring. This is not just a business competition, with one or two winners. The feedback from judges helps the entrants improve their business plans, and taking part allows them to meet funders and make contacts. By reaching the final, all companies have proved that their technology is effective and that it has commercial potential. They can then take that accolade to investors and customers and use it to advance their business themselves. One Asia regional finalist from 2007, the mobile security company TenCube, did just that. As a result, it was recently acquired by security firm McAfee in a multimillion dollar deal. Five years later, we’ve proved that the competition model works: $2.5m has been awarded to the winners, and finalists have gone on to secure over $80 million investment, as well as growing, creating jobs and generating many millions more in contracts. The concept has attracted interest from large companies and governments with problems they can’t solve. For example, air travellers could soon benefit from a relaxation of the onerous security searches because of the success of one of our winners. Kromek, a spin-off from UK’s Durham University, won last year’s prize with a liquid scanning system that can tell the difference between water and liquid explosives. In October this year, the European Union approved the system for Europe’s airports. This year’s final takes place next week at the University of London’s Senate House, and looks to have some of the most exciting innovations yet, ranging from an African entry which offers a cheap and secure medicines authentication test, to a technology to identify specific people quickly from thousands of hours of CCTV footage. We believe that our competition model can be replicated across the world of commercial science. Governments or businesses can pose any of the pressing problems facing the world – global warming, the ageing population, water shortages – and can invite entrants to pitch solutions to a panel of experts in that field. Just think what thousands of prizes, each the equivalent of the DoD’s cash, could do for ideas with serious commercial potential – not to mention the validation of being deemed good enough to be a finalist. Taken up on a large scale, these competitions could be a cost-effective way of solving global problems – and accelerating the process of commercialising the science on which a large part of our global economy relies. Governments would see speedier returns on their investment, which in turn will help justify increasing science funding. The process might even free up more funds for pure research, which remains crucial, but can be seen as hard to justify in troubled times. And what could be wrong with the idea of morale-boosting competitive fun as a way of solving some of the world’s worst problems?