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March 2013
Dean Andy Boynton

Reading list

Books and articles that matter

By Dean Andy Boynton

A study featured in the February 7 journal Nature Biotechnology shows what happened when researchers from the Harvard Medical School, Harvard Business School, and London Business School reached out to TopCoder, the open innovation platform and crowdsourcing firm founded 13 years ago by Carroll School alumnus Jack Hughes ’84, to help resolve enormously complex scientific research problems. Tapping its global community of 450,000 software developers and algorithm specialists, TopCoder identified a program that can analyze mind-boggling amounts of data from genes and gene mutations that build antibodies and T cell receptors—and do it more quickly than conventional approaches, at a fraction of the cost.

I’ve visited Jack Hughes a couple of times in his Glastonbury, Connecticut, office. Every time I go, I walk away thinking I’m seeing the future of how expertise can be leveraged and organized to deliver value. Here’s why:  

In the article “Prize-based contests can provide solutions to computational biology problems,” researchers describe their challenge to TopCoder: develop a predictive algorithm on an order of magnitude better than the National Institutes of Health’s standard approach that can scale up to escalating data demands.

TopCoder engineers translated the problem, making it accessible to coders who weren’t trained in computational biology, before posting it on They offered prizes of up to $500 apiece for credible solutions. This isn’t a gimmick or a one-off strategy. It’s the modus operandi of TopCoder: members of its community take part in contests to come up with creative designs and solutions.

Over the course of two weeks, 733 coders from around the world took up the challenge. Nearly half were IT professionals, though none were academic or industrial computational biologists. In the end, contest participants produced more than 600 submissions that included 89 “novel computational approaches,” according to the authors. “Thirty submissions exceeded the benchmark performance of the US National Institutes of Health’s MegaBLAST. The best achieved both greater accuracy and speed (1,000 times greater).”

The entire competition cost a mere $6,000.

Jack Hughes and I have spoken about how his model leverages global expertise. But TopCoder is doing more than that. Its innovation platform is revolutionizing how to organize knowledge, and tap talent across major distances, to produce results that exceed traditional methods of generating ideas. This has real implications for the future and what we teach.

In higher education, we talk a lot about learning online, but this is sophisticated global crowd sourcing and problem solving online using a robust innovation platform. Those of us who lead schools of management and research centers, develop curricula, write cases, and conduct research might want to rethink our views of collaboration and organizing talent to deliver knowledge assets in many shapes and forms.

We can all enhance what we do and move it forward by tapping into ideas and expertise from a variety of disciplines and sectors regardless of geographic location—widening and expanding our intellectual bandwidth, so to speak. We can manage expertise in ways never imagined 15 years ago. TopCoder is Exhibit A.


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