GE NFL Head Health Challenge: People's Insights Volume 2, Issue 11

What is the GE NFL Head Health Challenge? 

In March 2013, GE and NFL launched the open innovation Head Health Challenge to mobilize innovators around head health: to help diagnose mild traumatic brain injury and improve the safety of athletes, members of the military and society overall. The challenge is a part of the Head Health Initiative a new four-year, $60 million partnership between GE and NFL to research the brain.

Forbes’s Monte Burke explains the initiative:

“There will be two parts. The first will involve a $40 million research project headed up by GE, designed to better diagnose mild head trauma and predict its outcomes. The second will be two different challenges, led by Under Armour, but accessible to anyone and called the “open innovation challenge.” The first of those will also involve diagnosis and prognosis. The second will focus on trying to design materials that help protect the head from trauma.” 



The challenge launches amidst growing concerns around the safety of professional footballers. CNN’s Chris Isidore notes the importance of this initiative not only for the NFL, but also the larger public:

“Experts say beyond the legal risks, the growing concern about football’s brain injuries could hurt the sport’s popularity. The threat of brain damage, especially to young players, is prompting a growing number of parents to hold their sons back from playing competitive football…

“People outside of football, including injured members of the military and those with degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, will also benefit from the joint effort.”

How it works 

Like most online collaborative social innovation initiatives, the Head Health Challenge follows a contest model in which GE and NFL post the challenge on a platform and invites individuals, groups of individuals or other organizations to submit innovations.

NY Times’ Judy Battista explains the crowdsourcing process:

“G.E. would run, with an initial investment of $20 million, what it calls an innovation challenge, asking inventors, entrepreneurs, scientists and academicians to submit ideas for how safety equipment could be improved. The most promising ideas would be selected, financed and brought to market, opening the field to ideas that have not sprung from G.E. or helmet manufacturers.”

The $20 million prize money will be spread over the two parts of the challenge. Part I launched in March 2013 and calls for submissions by July 2013. Part II is scheduled to launch in the second half of 2013 and continue into 2014.



Proposals are judged according to set of technical criteria, and a panel of external medical experts will advise GE and NFL on the selection of awardees. The Head Health Challenge offers two types of Guided Funding Awards designed to enable collaboration between GE and NFL and the award winners. Awards range from $100,000 to $300,000 and will support development of proof of concept. Awardees will receive the cash in installments – the first after agreeing to a guided funding plan with GE and NFL, and the second upon submission of a progress report after six months. This structure instills the need for accountability and protects the interests of GE and NFL, while also providing a structured approach for the award winners.

At the completion of the funding and concept development, winners have the opportunity to discuss additional funding or business relationships with GE and NFL.

Collaborative social innovation at GE

GE has launched several similar open innovation challenges as part of its business strategy, to co-create innovative and sustainable solutions that create shared value. With this model of crowdsourcing, GE is usually looking to invest in or acquire the innovation, or promote it by supporting it with its business scale.

For instance, since the launch of the GE ecomagination Challenge to find innovations in energy and sustainability, GE has committed $134 million to 22 investments and commercial partnerships, granted $1.1 million in seed funding to early stage companies and entrepreneurs, and acquired one of the businesses that entered the challenge.

GE’s $200 Million ecomagination challenge

In addition to the series of ecomagination challenges around sustainable living, GE has also launched a Healthymagination Challenge to find solutions in the fight against breast cancer.

Why open Innovation

New this year is GE’s decision to launch the challenge on open innovation platform NineSigma, which has a community of 2 million solution providers including businesses, universities, government agencies and innovators. The challenge is also open to innovators beyond the NineSigma community.

In a recent TEDx Talk, Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of open innovation platform Innocentive, highlights the benefit of tapping into crowds:

“What we have created are systems where we build large facilities and large buildings full of the researchers that we think can solve the most important problems. We hire the best in the world to work on those problems, but we all know the fundamental limitation of that kind of system. We couldn’t hire all the smartest people in a given field if we wanted to, we can’t.”

On the Head Health Challenge website, GE shares its own experience with crowdsourcing:

“The power of collaboration between diverse networks cannot be overstated. Our experience has shown us that at GE we don’t have all of the solutions, but rather the unique opportunity to seek out great ideas and accelerate their growth. We can leverage our scale and expertise to nurture innovation wherever its seeds grow.”

GE and NFL play complementary roles within their partnership. In an interview with FastCompany, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell noted the need for a partner to process the proposals and derive solutions:

“I must get several proposals a day: ‘We have a solution,’ ‘We have the next best material,’ ‘We’ve got the helmet.’ We don’t have a disciplined system to evaluate and learn from each of those, because it’s usually not one or the other. Maybe it’s the combination. That’s the challenge of innovation.”

And, GE CEO Jeff Immelt pointed out NFL’s potential to “make brain advancements a public priority”:

“With a lot of research, you really want a catalyst so other people will join in. Very few institutions have the convening power that the NFL does.”

Big data and sensors in healthcare

One of the possible areas of innovation in the Head Health Challenge involves the use of sensors as a research tool. As Education Week’s Bryan Toprek notes:

“In an interview with the Associated Press after Monday’s announcement, Goodell mentioned the possibility of players wearing helmets with sensors to help detect hits that could cause concussions. Such helmets are already being used by researchers to determine the severity of hits during youth-football practices, for instance.”


lighter helmets


In our previous People’s Insights reports, we have examined the use of sensors, wearable tech and data to drive behavioral change and help people make better decisions (see our weekly report on the Nike FuelBand. These technologies are now becoming more common as start-ups and big health care companies explore the use of sensors and data as a research tool, to identify new patterns.

GigaOM’s Ki Mae Heussner notes:

“In the last couple of months, startups like Brain Sentry and X2 Biosystems, which use sensors to monitor head impact, have attracted funding from investors.”

Heussner also notes:

“Already, big companies and emerging startups are leading the way in the smart use of data. At GigaOM’s recent Structure: Data conference, Aetna’s head of innovation Michael Palmer talked about how the company is using data to prevent diabetes and heart attacks. Startup Asthmapolis (which this week raised $5 million) is using GPS data collected via sensors attached to inhalers to help individuals, physicians and public health officials uncover asthma-related patterns.”

We cover the rise of data and sensors in our annual reports on Behavior Change Games and Collective Intelligence.

* MSLGROUP’s People’s Lab crowdsourcing platform and approach helps organizations tap into people’s insights for innovation, storytelling and change. The People’s Lab crowdsourcing platform also enables our distinctive insights and foresight approach, which consists of four elements: organic conversation analysis, MSLGROUP’s own insight communities, client-specific insights communities, and ethnographic deep dives into these communities.

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As an example, 100+ thinkers and planners within MSLGROUP share and discuss inspiring projects on corporate citizenship, crowdsourcing, storytelling and social data on the MSLGROUP Insights Network. Every week, we pick up one project and do a deep dive into conversations around it — on the MSLGROUP Insights Network itself but also on the broader social web — to distill insights and foresights. We share these insights and foresights with you on our People’s Insights blog and compile the best insights from the network and the blog in the People’s Lab Quarterly Magazine, as a showcase of our capabilities. We have synthesized the insights from  2012 to provide foresights for business leaders and changemakers — in the ten-part  People’s Insights Annual Report titled Now & Next: Ten Frontiers for the Future of Engagement.

As you can imagine, we can bring the same innovative approach to help you distill insights and foresights from conversations and communities. To start a conversation on how we can help you win with insights and foresights, write to Pascal Beucler at