Felicia Ng | March 27 2019


The Insider’s Playbook to the Con X Tech Prize

Tips from Round 1 participants on getting the most value for your project team

Twenty-thousand dollars is a nice piece of change, but will only get you so far.

The Con X Tech Prize (CXTP) awards over $90,000 in total to 20 Finalist projects and 1 Grand Prize winner over a multiple-month ideation and prototyping competition. But doling out $20,000 to an innovative conservation solution is not the only outcome of the CXTP -- not even the primary one, and certainly not the final one. Developing a successful proof of concept is, in fact, just the beginning of a longer journey to bringing a solution to life; a journey that we can all learn from and contribute to via the Digital Makerspace.

Of the scores of competitions, grant programs, and challenge contests out there, we know applying can feel like slinging mud against a wall over and over again, hoping for something to stick. It’s time-consuming, at times disappointing, and hard to know when the return on investment of completing multitudes of applications will pay off. That’s why Conservation X Labs (CXL) designed the CXTP to award smaller amounts so we could support a larger and more diverse pool of ideas, provide more benefits than just funding (e.g., advising and community support), and learn how a bit of seed funding can help teams develop an initial proof of concept and start to see if their “crazy” idea… just might work.

Challenge Snapshot

Con X Tech Prize, Round 2: Invasive Species & Blue Sky

Calling anyone ready to take action on a world-changing idea to collaborate, create, and catalyze new tech for conservation!

Over the course of 2018, CXL ran the first Round of the CXTP. In the spirit of continuous improvement and collaboration, CXL partnered with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to collect participants’ feedback on their experiences in the CXTP. Felicia Ng interviewed 20 volunteers from the Digital Makerspace (DMS) community who participated in Ideation (Stage 1) and Prototyping (Stage 2) during Round 1 of the CXTP (including both Finalists and non-Finalists) to learn about their strategies for achieving project goals as well as the benefits and challenges that they experienced through the competition process. Below, we share our findings as well as recommendations for how YOU can get the most value out of Round 2 of the CXTP and the DMS.

Two of the ocean-based Tech Prize entrants
Left: Real Deep Conservation VR project team in the lab
Right:Lobster Lift project team exhibiting at Make for the Planet
SubC Imaging

Value beyond Money

When asked about the most valuable thing that they got out of the CXTP, both Finalists and non-Finalists reported that the most important benefits extended far beyond the monetary prize itself (though $3,500 comes in handy too). In particular, participants cited 6 personal and professional benefits of engaging in the CXTP:

  1. No Excuses: Having a deadline to motivate them towards starting or advancing a dream project that they’ve wanted to work on but never got around to,
  2. Cheerleaders:Receiving external support, encouragement, or validation from the global conservation community on a project that they’ve only been working on by themselves or with a small local team,
  3. Status Symbol: Establishing legitimacy for early-stage projects and start-up’s through association with an official organization like CXL, which helped drum up more interest from potential partners, donors, and users,
  4. Network Effect: Connecting with other conservationists and technical experts from around the world who ended up becoming integral project team members or mentors who provided valuable feedback and access to additional resources,
  5. Be in the Know: Learning about other conservation projects around the world, staying up to date with innovations in the conservation technology field, and getting inspiration from others’ ideas,
  6. Impact: Fulfilling a personal passion for contributing to meaningful conservation solutions by advancing their own projects and helping others advance theirs.
Several teams from Make for the Planet Borneo entered the Tech Prize
Left: Team Harapan working on their Fish Data Ecosystem App at Make for the Planet Borneo
Right: Team Scoutbot working on their Coral Reef Mapping Drone project

Not just for Finalists

In addition to the personal and professional benefits that they gained from the CXTP, both Finalists and non-Finalists also expressed a desire for more engagement with the DMS community. In particular, participants cited 3 common opportunities for more substantial interactions and building meaningful relationships with other community members:

  1. Finding team members and mentors with relevant expertise for their specific project needs. Naturally, different projects required different types of contributions and mentorship, ranging from technical expertise such as machine learning or software development, to business advising, to support with communications and grant writing. Participants desired more engagement from other community members who have matching skill sets listed on their personal profiles or from those with relevant skills to reach out directly to their project team.
  2. Receiving useful feedback on project posts on the DMS. Some participants asked for help on specific problems by posting questions in the “Discussion & Tasks” section of their project page and needed more input from the community. They wanted to see other members jumping into posts to offer substantive answers, knowledge, resources, other leads, or even a bit of encouragement.
  3. Joining other project teams on the DMS. Some participants reached out to team members on other projects that they were genuinely interested in helping or collaborating with, and would have liked to receive responses from the project initiators with additional information or suggesting clear tasks that they could contribute to.

7 Steps to Success in the Con X Tech Prize

  1. Be Specific. Describe your team’s needs in detail on your project page. Take the time to write thoughtful descriptions of what stage your project is currently in and what contributions, mentorship, or expertise your team could benefit from in the “Project Needs” section of your Project Application and Profile (hint: you can return to edit your project profile at any time). Post your needs in the “Discussion & Tasks” section of your project page as well. This will help people with those skills to identify and connect with your project.
  2. Recruit. Look for people who have relevant knowledge or skill sets that your project could benefit from and reach out to them to see if they’re interested in joining your team. Check the profile pages of people who comment on your project page or on other project pages that you’re interested in. Some of the most successful teams from Round 1 of the CXTP were formed this way!
  3. Help us get to know you. Complete your own personal profile page on the DMS. The more information you provide about your expertises and interests, the easier it is for people who have useful resources and opportunities for you to identify and connect with you. Some of the most successful participants in Round 1 of the CXTP were recruited to a project team because of this!
  4. Find projects that are relevant to your skills or interests. Creative problem-solving inspirations often come from unexpected sources, and taking the time to look through other teams’ projects can help you think of a new approach to your own project or even spark a new collaboration.
  5. Share your thoughts. Reach out to project teams that you find interesting to ask questions, learn more about them, exchange ideas and feedback, or even collaborate. You can do this on the DMS by posting comments in the “Discussion & Tasks” section of their project page or by private messaging the team members individually. Some participants in Round 1 of the CXTP even contacted one another through email and set up video conferences to connect more deeply.
  6. Stay in touch. Follow up with people that you engage with through the DMS. Some of the most valuable relationships between participants in Round 1 of the CXTP were built through periodic check-ins with one another throughout the competition process, and many successful project team leaders wanted to maintain relationships with peers from other project teams beyond the competition. They appreciated having a cheerleader or someone to bounce ideas off of and knowing that someone is following their work. Besides, you never know who might become a future collaborator!
  7. Spread the word. Invite your friends to join the DMS! Solving the world’s most pressing conservation problems requires collaboration between people with diverse backgrounds and expertises. The more members that we have in our community, the more likely that your project team can find the skills and mentorship that you need to achieve your goals.

Our mission is to build the global conservation innovation and technology community, and we are always looking for new ways to bring more value to members on the DMS. Thank you so much to all the participants who generously volunteered their time to provide valuable feedback after Round 1 of the CXTP. We can’t wait to bring more community engagement to you in the Round 2 of the CXTP!

Felicia Ng is a PhD student in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Her research focuses on understanding and improving engagement and collaboration in online communities, especially around crowd innovation.
Cassie Hoffman is the Digital Makerspace platform manager, a social scientist, and outdoors adventurer.

Story Mentions (2)

Felicia Ng [2]
PhD Student
Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh, United States
Cassie Ann Hoffman [2352]
Product Manager
Conservation X Labs