Nokia Corporation (NOK), a mobile communications developer based in Finland, unveiled last week a competition for medical sensing solutions that indicates a new direction for the company, as well as a novel way of using open innovation. The competition, called the Nokia Sensing X Challenge, is conducted with the X Prize Foundation, and has a total purse of $2.25 million.
The challenge is seeking entries for the first of three such competitions planned for the next three years. Through the competition, Nokia aims to generate ideas for systems, software, devices, or components that can detect and measure biological, cognitive, physical, environmental, and even emotional phenomena involving the human body.
The competition is structured to encourage more serious entrants than off-the-wall ideas. Competitors are encouraged to form teams and submit an intent-to-compete form before sending in an entry. Entrants need to identify their organizational affiliations - companies, not-for-profits, or academic institutions - and while the competition is global, the rules say teams need to have a bank account that can take U.S. dollars and have no members from places that violate U.S. export controls or sanctions.
Mobile solutions not mandatory, but...
The announcement does not specify that entries must involve mobile systems, but the guidelines and instructions emphasize solutions that favor mobile applications, Nokia's main line of business. In the judging criteria, for example, one set of factors for judging entries is usability, defined as weight (lower is better), unobtrusiveness, and size (smaller preferred), as well as needs for power and data. Another judging factor that suggests a preference for mobile is affordability, defined as inexpensive enough to be accessible to consumers.
The technologies specifically mentioned in the guidelines emphasize miniaturization, such as microelectrical mechanical systems and lab-on-a-chip technologies. Again, these solutions would most likely be used in small, hand-held, and point-of-care devices using mobile health care or life science technologies.
Yet another indication Nokia favors mobile solutions is the connection to a similar challenge by mobile semiconductor maker Qualcomm (QCOM), announced in January 2012. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, with a $10 million total purse, specifically seeks "devices that will give consumers access to their state of health in the palm of their hand." Teams that enter ideas in Qualcomm's challenge, also conducted by X-Prize Foundation, may also submit their ideas to Nokia's competition.
An expansion by Nokia into health care IT appears to fit into its partnership with Microsoft Corporation (MSFT). Microsoft has a long involvement with healthcare IT, including its Health Vault platform for storing medical data. Last year, Microsoft unveiled a mobile version of Health Vault, including the ability to sign in with a Facebook ID.
Not much of a track record
While many companies sponsor challenges and idea competitions, this challenge seems to be one of the few to use crowdsourcing for ideas outside of a company's usual line of business. Most corporate open innovation programs, like those for Eli Lilly & Company (LLY) and Procter and Gamble (PG), normally operate as extensions of their corporate research departments, supplementing current R&D.
Up till now, Nokia's idea of open innovation involved collaborations with research universities. In addition, Nokia appears to have hardly any track record in healthcare or the life sciences. Mounting the Sensing X Challenge advertises its intention to exploit these fields, but in the process, can generate a collection of useful technologies with which to compete.
This strategy can also provide these technologies with relatively low investment and probably faster development times than most corporate R&D. The first awards are scheduled for May 2013, with subsequent awards in October 2013 and October 2014. Entrants are encouraged to submit study results, diagrams, videos, and prototypes, not just ideas on paper.
By the second quarter of 2015, when the challenge is expected to officially close, Nokia should be well positioned to compete in the healthcare sector.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.