Freelance innovators for hire

Companies like InnoCentive are crowdsourcing unique solutions to puzzles

Ed Melcarek thought of himself as a company man. By the early 2000s, the design engineer had worked for the same Toronto technology firm for eight years. Then, one day, without warning, the business was sold and he was laid off. “When they gave me my walking papers,” he says, “it was quite a shock.”

Melcarek, then in his mid-50s, started looking for a new job. With a resume that included a University of British Columbia degree in engineering, stints in manufacturing, machinery and sonar, along with headhunting experience, he thought it would be simple enough to find work. But, after every interview, recruiters routinely dismissed him as “overqualified,” or, more vague, “not a good fit.”

Melcarek wasn’t far from hitting the welfare office when, in 2003, he stumbled upon a website called InnoCentive, where companies anonymously posted problems they couldn’t crack and offered cash awards to anyone who could. One challenge in particular caught his eye: Create a process to recover the solvent used in dry cleaning. A solution quickly popped into Melcarek’s mind; he worked out the details, drafted an answer and sent it in. Not long after, InnoCentive told him his solution had been accepted and mailed him a cheque for $5,000.

Since then, Melcarek, now 67 and living in MacTier, Ont., has won 12 more prizes—the largest was $30,000—in as many years. Every few days, he checks InnoCentive for others he can add to that tally. It takes him only a few minutes to decide whether he has a shot; when he reckons he does, he uses math and modelling software to design a solution. After years of frustration with company policies and office politics, he relishes the freedom to forget about red tape and deadlines and focus on what he loves: the science.

Over the past 15 years, Massachusetts-based InnoCentive—one of a cohort of companies in the business of open innovation, as the crowdsourced problem-solving industry is called—has attracted 350,000 solvers like Melcarek from nearly every country on the planet. These bright minds have submitted roughly 40,000 answers to more than 2,000 challenges in engineering, math, chemistry, life sciences, business and beyond, and won upward of $40 million (prizes range from $5,000 to $1 million).

Seekers—the companies posting the problems—enlist platforms such as InnoCentive to tap an otherwise unreachable pool of experts and to take the financial risk out of research and development. Solvers, meanwhile, tackle these problems for the cash, the intellectual interest and the thrill of it. They’re retired academics, semi-employed hobbyists, full-time scientists and everything in between. They’re whiz kids who are too young and inexperienced for corporate culture and geniuses who are too old and unhip to feel at home at a start-up. A few even count solving as a full-time profession. They’re faces of the new “gig economy.” These are the citizens of Free Agent Nation, as author Daniel Pink called it in his influential 2001 bestseller, and they’ve never met a challenge they didn’t like.

Read more on Maclean’s.

Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P.
Transcontinental Media G.P.