By Sarah Gomach, American-Made Program Prize Lead

Spurring innovation through the incentive of a “prize” isn’t a new strategy for governments searching for solutions to common problems. In fact, the prize format has been around for centuries.

Case in point: The 1714 Longitude Act was established when, struggling to ensure accurate navigation on their ships, the British Parliament issued a prize for anyone who could develop a method to accurately determine longitude on ships. The biggest winner of the Longitude Act was an unknown carpenter and self-taught clockmaker, John Harrison.

A few decades later, a prize launched in 1795 by the French government under Napoleon; an award was offered to an inventor who could offer a solution to large-scale food preservation. While the solution to this prize would have advantages at home, it would also serve to feed Napoleon’s army. In the end, pastry chef Nicolas Appert won the prize in 1809 for his innovative method of heating, boiling, and sealing food in airtight glass jars—a precursor to the modern canning process.

These two examples are captivating anecdotes of early invention by self-taught innovators. From a prize administration perspective, however, they are a valid programmatic foundation that governments still follow hundreds of years later—the American-Made program included.

Four people in a warehouse inspecting a solar panel and motor.
Competitors in the American-Made Waves to Water Prize share their wave-powered desalination innovations with the public at the prize’s DRINK Finale in North Carolina in April 2022.

In both cases, the prize method:

  1. Sought to solve a major challenge of their time. The British and French governments both identified a large-scale problem—ship navigation and long-term food preservation—that could yield significant benefits if solved. At American-Made, we’re working to tackle one of the biggest issues of our time: the clean energy transition.
  2. Utilized an inducement prize design. In both examples, the governments established inducement prizes, a type of competition that identifies a specific goal and challenges innovators to solve it, with the promise of a financial award. To date, American-Made has launched almost 60 prizes—all with different goals—with a combined prize pool of more than $200 million.
  3. Motivated unknown innovators. Neither of the eventual winners of these prizes were well known or could have been expected to make the contribution they did without the opportunity provided by the prize. Harrison was a carpenter and clock maker, and Appert had no formal scientific training. At American-Made, our prizes encourage a new and diverse group of innovators to compete in our prizes.
  4. Resulted in successful solutions. The technical advances made by Harrison and Appert through their prizes laid the foundation for navigation and food-preservation practices still in use today, as subsequent innovators built upon the framework each established. At American-Made, our prizes help innovators accelerate their development timelines and bring successful solutions to market faster.
  5. Underscored the role of government. In both examples, the government was a key player, defining the problem to be solved and fronting capital to encourage a solution. After the initial government investment, the private sector began funding the creation or use of these solutions. The American-Made program offers that initial funding through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), then connects competitors with a network of more than 400 organizations that can offer support during and after the prize.
Four people standing on a stage holding a giant check
illu Solar was awarded $200,000 in Round 5 of the Solar Prize for their workflow management software that will assist field technicians and simplify distributed solar maintenance.

These examples represent how the American-Made program was built on a tried-and-true, centuries-old prize framework; one that’s perfect for supporting clean tech innovation today.

Are you interested in reaping the rewards of a present-day prize—and furthering the clean energy revolution while you’re at it? Check out the complete list of open challenges. Who knows—you may be the next one to make history!