Three federal agencies are trying to tap the creativity of the marketplace to develop a new breed of portable, light-weight, inexpensive sensors to better understand how individuals are affected by air pollution.
The initiative, announced June 6, is the latest in a wave of government Challenge contests that serve up difficult public sector challenges and reward creative, fast-track solutions from the private sector with prize money.
Sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (part of the National Institutes of Health) and the Department of Health and Human Services, the challenge is called the “My Air, My Health” Challenge.
With new sensors, we can do much better studies than ever before about the impact of air pollution on public health.”
Its immediate goal is to develop a new generation of inexpensive, portable, light-weight sensors that simultaneously measure air pollution and individual physiological conditions such as blood pressure or heart rate.
The aim is to integrate “those sensors together to enable the environmental and health research community to investigate the linkages between air pollution exposure and physiological changes,” said Dr. David Balshaw, a program administrator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, via e-mail.
“When we do studies on the effects of air pollution on populations, we often have no specific individual information,” said Dr. Peter Preuss, chief innovation officer in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (pictured above.)
“With new sensors, we can do much better studies than ever before about the impact of air pollution on public health. We’re trying to develop these sensors and see how the two types can be used together.”
Small size and low cost are central to the Challenge. Current air pollution monitoring equipment weighs around 15 pounds and costs $50,000 to $100,000 or more, according to Preuss.
“We want to get away from that,” he said. He hopes that this Challenge will not only reduce sensor sizes to something you could attach to your cellphone, but also reduce their costs down to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. “My hope is that … we could get down to one dollar per sensor,” he said.
Because this Challenge “is being done under the America Competes Act, it must be posted on Challenge.gov,” said Denice Shaw, EPA’s Challenge Project Manager. However, visitors to Challenge.gov are immediately directed to www.innocentive.com/myairmyhealth.
Why InnoCentive? It has been organizing and managing Challenges since its initial formation as part of Eli Lilly in 2001 (InnoCentive became independent in 2005). Because of that experience, it has the most established platform and the largest network of solvers-individuals or groups who try to solve Challenges-of any organization.
InnoCentive’s role in “My Air, My Health” is assistance with the Challenge’s design, workflow management, provision of the cloud platform for handling solver responses, and presentation of the Challenge to its 250,000-strong network of solvers. “InnoCentive is managing the whole online process on its platform,” said Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of Innocentive.
Phase I of “My Air, My Health” involves proposing designs for the small, integrated, and inexpensive air pollution/physiology sensors. Solvers submitting the four best proposals will each win $15,000. These winners can then proceed to Phase II, in which they must convert their proposals into working prototypes. The most effective prototype wins the solver a $100,000 award.
“My Air, My Health” is the EPA’s first Challenge under the America Competes Act, but Preuss says one or two dozen others were conducted under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Completed in 2011, “‘Apps for the Environment’ called for people to develop apps that use environmental data in useful and unique ways,” Shaw said. A current EPA Challenge asks universities and colleges to find ways to save water on-campus.
“Imagine a million people in the country with these [My Air/My Health] sensors,” said Spradlin. “You could see a lot of people in an area with specific air pollutants, and you could see their physiology. Then you could look for relationships. That data could be staggeringly insightful in terms of not only trying to understand both the pollutants and how people are reacting to them, but also in terms of identifying trends.”