San Diego’s Qualcomm Embraces Experiment in Incentive Prizes

It’s probably still too early to know if incentive prize competitions will prove to be a sustainable method for advancing technology innovation, but Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) has embraced the idea—at least as an experimental hypothesis.

The San Diego wireless technology giant has been testing the concept in various ways, beginning about three years ago with the introduction of its international QPrize competition, organized by Qualcomm Ventures. The company also has been working with the X-Prize Foundation to set the ground rules for its $10 million Tricorder X Prize to stimulate the invention of a mobile wireless device that could be used to rapidly diagnose injuries and illness. Qualcomm also sponsored a “Snapdragon Gaming World Record Challenge” during the E3 gaming conference last month, awarding $20,000 to Efren Ballestamon of Chula Vista, CA, while a group of gamers set the Guinness World Record for the “Longest Mobile Gaming Marathon” at just over 26 hours.

The QPrize has been successful enough for Qualcomm to increase the total amount of cash awards this year to $1 million, and to add regional competitions in Eastern Europe and Brazil to existing contests in North America, China, India, Israel, Korea, and Western Europe. Qualcomm’s motivation is twofold: To help entrepreneurs who have very little access to capital, and to help seed the mobile and wireless ecosystem with Qualcomm-compatible technology.

Qualcomm is collecting data and gaining experience with each type of prize contest it comes up with, and last week the company tried something new. The Qualcomm team responsible for encouraging software developers to work on the company’s Snapdragon technology platform hosted nearly 200 at a “hackathon and codefest,” held in San Diego the day before its annual Uplinq developers’ conference. The all-day app development contest offered a total of $50,000 in cash prizes, awarding $5,000 to the best app in five categories and an additional $25,000 grand prize for best overall app.

The idea makes perfect sense as a way to encourage third party developers to use the chipmaker’s technology. As Paul Jacobs, Qualcomm’s chairman and CEO noted during his keynote talk, almost three out of five presenters at the Uplinq conference are third-party developers. Jacobs also announced another new incentive prize contest during his talk, this time offering a total of $200,000 in cash prizes for a Windows RT Metro Style App Developer Contest.

The $25,000 grand prize from the codefest went to Rich Stoner, a research engineer at UC San Diego, for demonstrating an app that could be used to detect signs of autism in 12-month-old infants, which is about two years earlier than is possible with conventional tests. Stoner’s app took advantage of eye-tracking capabilities built into the Snapdragon platform, and his app also won the $5,000 prize in the category for “best prototype app using facial processing.”

Winners in the other four categories were:

—Best multi-screen experience using Qualcomm’s AllJoyn technology: Car Join, an app that uses the near-proximity technology to quickly establish direct peer-to-peer networks to provide certain health data and call 911 after a car crash.

—Best HTML5 Web app: Qgram, which combines three Qualcomm Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to apply colorful filters to smartphone photos.

—Best Windows Phone app: Expensify, which helps users track and manage their business-related expenses.

—Best context awareness app: Breadcrumbs, which uses Snapdragon’s GPS technology to passively track user activities.

When I talked with Stoner this morning, he said he had been invited to attend Qualcomm’s Uplinq conference to meet the company’s technical staff and to see the kind of work that’s taking place with 3-D mobile displays and gaming. He described the all-day codefest “as a mix of a hackathon and [technology] training session,” and said it was a “really useful” session.

Stoner is a post-doctoral fellow who has spent the past three years working with Eric Courchesne and Karen Pierce at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence. His app was based on a simple test that plays two videos at the same time—one of geometric patterns and the other of kids engaged in social activities—and uses the eye-tracking technology to determine which one an infant watches more. Certain autistic children respond more to the geometric patterns.

Stoner said results of the test are reproducible, but he doesn’t have any plans to commercialize the mobile app he developed—mostly because his research at UCSD is focused in other areas of mobile health and health care informatics.

Nevertheless, Stoner said incentive prize competitions offer a chance for a “no-name startup” to win worldwide fame, and perhaps even get a jump on technology rivals with better-known teams and a better pipeline to venture capital funding.

He credits the X Prize Foundation for its pioneering groundwork in using substantial prizes to induce innovation in specific areas of technology. Stoner also said he sees more value in competitions that promote open innovation—such as the Tricorder X Prize—that “get people to work together to solve problems affecting an entire industry.” In contrast, he says there are a lot of crowd-sourcing contests offered by some websites that are closed-systems—and “where the only person who benefits is the one who pays for the solution.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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