Cameron's £1m prize for the next big thing

David Cameron

David Cameron is launching a new prize, offering £1 million to any Briton who can come up with the 'next penicillin' or 'world wide web'. The idea is to encourage innovation to help Britain compete on a global stage.

But will it work?


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According to the BBC, Cameron launches the prize at the G8 Innovation Conference today. He says the prize will go to anyone who can "identify and solve the biggest problem of our time". He adds: "We are looking for the next penicillin, aeroplane or world wide web."

Why?

The prize is obviously intended for anyone who can spark the next rapid period of growth in the UK, as it takes the forefront in something-or-other. Cameron doesn't seem to mind what field this innovation comes in, as long as the UK can take the lead and make some money off the back of it.

He says: "Can we grow limbs or create universal low carbon travel? Something that is going to really revolutionise what we do and how we live our lives - sending us sprinting ahead in the global race. What is the biggest challenge the world faces in the coming years, and how do we solve it?"

The prize is based on one launched by parliament 300 years ago - the Longitude Prize - which rewarded anyone who could improve ships' navigation. The winner was John Harrison, who took home around £20,000 for his efforts - which roughly translates to about £1.2 million today. It will be overseen by the Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, who will chair a new Longitude Committee.

As The Guardian pointed out, Cameron is probably hoping for more rapid commercialisation of the innovation, as last time around the prize-winning solution took a hundred years to become practical for sea travel.

So will it work?

There's an argument that the world of innovation is littered with prizes. If you are genuinely brewing up an idea that will transform the way we live, there's every chance you will be showered with all sorts of awards if you can make it work. Many of them already have significant sums of money attached to them too, and backing from major organisations who could help realise those ideas. Cisco, for example, has awards for hi-tech ideas, with $200,000 up for grabs.

You could also argue that if you have an idea that is genuinely world-changing, then £1 million is a drop in the ocean in the money you stand to make. A list of the world's Billionaires includes a smattering of those who have taken huge strides forward in a range of industries.

So can this make a difference?

There is some hope. Innovators and revolutionaries are not always astounding business-people. Many of them are sitting in small, dark corners, with an idea that could change the world and a complete lack of ability to share their idea or make any money from it. This prize could, in theory, bring them out of the dark.

Likewise it could persuade academics to push their most gifted students to new heights of innovation, in order to gain prestige for their organisation. Although given that most universities have a facility to spin off breakthroughs to make money for themselves, you have to ask whether they have any need for this avenue.

Alternatively, it could have a deeper and more profound impact. Children growing up today will have the example of a prestigious prize for science and innovation. It will offer immediate and real rewards for people who can excel in areas where generally the rewards don't seem so obvious.

At the moment all the rewards appear to be for Wags and celebrities. This may offer a small counter-balance to that perception. Perhaps there's a small chance that some of those leaving school in years to come may aspire to win that prize - instead of trying to win Big Brother.

But what do you think? let us know in the comments.
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