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Innovation Blog

Open-Ended RFP’s: A Simple Way to Encourage Innovation

A message from Foundation Trustee, Dr. Jim McEwen, introducing the Manning Request for Proposals.

In December 1907, the United States Signal Corp issued what today would be called a “Request for Proposals” (RFP). Then entitled “Signal Corp Specification 486”, it invited proposals for “One Heavier than Air Flying Machine”.

The descriptive portion of this RFP consisted of 14 short paragraphs describing the objective and covering only 1.5 pages. Several of the listed requirements strike us as amusing in retrospect such as the request that the desired heavier than air flying machine be “equipped with a device to permit of a safe descent in the event of an accident to the propelling machinery.”

Because the Army procurement officers weren’t really sure what they were asking for, they couldn’t over specify – which turned out to be the greatest strength of their RFP. All they could do was to be clear on their objective – to obtain one heavier than air flying machine – leaving the ways and means whereby this objective was to be attained up to the innovative imagination of the respondents.
RFP 486 generated interest and responses - some of them complicated and expensive such as that submitted by inventor Charles Wanzer seeking one million dollars for its implementation.

The winning response? The $25,000 proposal submitted by two brothers, Orville and Wilbur Wright, operating out of their bicycle shop in Dayton Ohio.

Thus a simple, open-ended RFP played a major role in moving the idea of an airplane from the innovative imaginations of the Wright brothers into the real world of transportation and military use which it occupies so prominently today. Open-ended RFPs are a simple and effective way to encourage innovation.

Fast forward to the year 2000. Canadian mining executive Rob McEwen, then CEO of Goldcorp, had an objective – to vastly improve the performance of Goldcorp’s under-producing Red Lake gold mine in northwestern Ontario.

So what did Rob do? He used an RFP. Contrary to all the conventional wisdom of the mining industry he put all the proprietary mining data on the Red Lake mine up on the Internet. He then requested proposals from anybody with ideas on how to achieve the objective – incentivizing responses by offering over half a million dollars in awards to those submitting the best proposals.

The results? Over 1000 responses received from respondents in 50 countries. Analysis, acceptance, and implementation of the best ideas received then turned the Red Lake mine into one of the most productive and profitable gold mines in the world. Open-ended and incentivized RFPs, like the McEwen RFP, are a simple and effective way to encourage innovation.

Fast forward again to 2018. The Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation has been in the business of identifying and rewarding early-stage innovators in Canada for the past 37 years. Over 4.8 million dollars have been awarded by the Foundation over that period to more than 290 Canadian innovators – innovators as diverse as Mike Lazaridis, the founder of Blackberry, to Fred Marsh who perfected the breakaway peg for affixing hockey nets firmly but safely to the ice surface.

When the Manning Awards were first conceived by the late David Mitchell, then CEO of the Alberta Energy Corporation, they were themselves an innovative response to the objective of making Canada more welcoming and receptive to innovations of all kinds. Since then, the innovation climate has vastly improved – every political, academic, and business leader now extolling the benefits of innovation and several dozen programs existing to encourage Canadian innovators in a variety of fields.

This being the case, the Directors of the Manning Awards Foundation have decided to themselves be “innovative again” after the original example of David Mitchell. This month, therefore, they have issued Manning Awards RFP No. 1, accompanied by up to $300,000 in financial incentives, and inviting proposals to completely reinvent, sustain, and grow Canada’s premier program – the Manning Awards program - for discovering, recognizing, and celebrating outstanding early-stage innovators of all kinds.

Like the examples of the Signal Corp Specification and the McEwen RFP, the Manning Awards RFP hopes to spark the imagination of respondents and embrace the Canadian spirit of Innovation. Rather than over-specify, the Manning Awards Foundation is open to any and all ideas, with the objective of celebrating and promoting still greater innovation across Canada.

Somewhere out there in Canada is yet another great champion of innovation with exciting 21st-century ideas on how best to continue and expand the identification, recognition, and rewarding of Canada’s early stage innovators. The Manning Awards RFP No. 1 is intended to identify and support that champion.

About the Author: Jim McEwen Ph.D. is a biomedical engineer and Trustee of the Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation. He has been granted more than 240 patents for innovative medical devices.

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