Innovation Prizes in Practice and Theory

54 Pages Posted: 8 Mar 2016 Last revised: 7 Sep 2016

See all articles by Michael J. Burstein

Michael J. Burstein

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

Fiona Murray

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Entrepreneurship Center

Date Written: March 3, 2016


Innovation prizes in reality are significantly different from innovation prizes in theory. The former are familiar from popular accounts of historical prizes like the Longitude Prize: the government offers a set amount for a solution to a known problem, like £20,000 for a method of calculating longitude at sea. The latter are modeled as compensation to inventors in return for donating their inventions to the public domain. Neither the economic literature nor the policy literature that led to the 2010 America COMPETES Reauthorization Act — which made prizes a prominent tool of government innovation policy — provides a satisfying justification for the use of prizes, nor does either literature address their operation. In this article, we address both of these problems. We use a case study of one canonical, high profile innovation prize — the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize — to explain how prizes function as institutional means to achieve exogenously defined innovation policy goals in the face of significant uncertainty and information asymmetries. Focusing on the structure and function of actual innovation prizes as an empirical matter enables us to make three theoretical contributions to the current understanding of prizes. First, we offer a stronger normative justification for prizes grounded in their status as a key institutional arrangement for solving a specified innovation problem. Second, we develop a model of innovation prize governance and then situate that model in the administrative state, as a species of "new governance" or "experimental" regulation. Third, we derive from those analyses a novel framework for choosing among prizes, patents, and grants, one in which the ultimate choice depends on a trade off between the efficacy and scalability of the institutional solution.

Keywords: innovation, prizes, governance, administrative law

Suggested Citation

Burstein, Michael J. and Murray, Fiona E., Innovation Prizes in Practice and Theory (March 3, 2016). 29 Harvard Journal of Law and Technology 401 (2016) , Cardozo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 479, Available at SSRN:

Michael J. Burstein (Contact Author)

Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law ( email )

55 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10003
United States

Fiona E. Murray

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Entrepreneurship Center ( email )

United States

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