There's innovative thinking. Then there's that level of life-changing, innovative thinking few businesses or social enterprises seem capable of acting on and scaling.

Here's your chance to step in and make a difference.

In September, the X Prize Foundation announced one of its largest challenges in its 18-year history--a $15 million reward split among the five teams that best teach children with low literacy skills how to read, write and do math through tablet-based software. It has previously awarded millions of dollars to teams that have helped start the private space industry, tackled oil spills in oceans and built safe, affordable and super fuel-efficient cars.

Also in September, the Knight Foundation launched a $5 million contest for entrepreneurs, architects, artists, city planners and innovators of all types: What's your best idea to make one of 26 cities more successful when it comes to attracting and retaining talent, expanding economic opportunity and/or creating a culture of civic engagement?

Then there's the Hult Prize, a startup accelerator contest that the former President Bill Clinton hosted that same month at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI). He'll announce which one of six pilot projects wins $1 million for best tackling non-communicable diseases in urban slums.

So how do you win one of these, or similar, challenges--like those hosted by the United Nations Development Program or Dubai government?

Don't: Bet Against Bugs--or Seemingly Quirky Concepts
Remember: If a solution to a world-pressing problem were obvious, someone would have figured it out by now.

During the Hult Prize last year, the odds seemed stacked against Aspire Food Group, a startup that argued scaling production of cricket-based chips and baking flour could help solve the global food crisis. In spite of the ick factor, the team won.

"No one would believe we gave an international award [to a team] who told us to eat more crickets," said Clinton. "You're laughing, but this is going to be an amazing thing."

Since then the company has grown to employ around a dozen workers, launched operations in Ghana and leased a facility in Texas to supply cricket-based goods to customers in Mexico, says Ahmad Ashkar, founder and chief executive of the Hult Prize.

Do: Mix Up Your Team
Combining the next Naomi Klein and Jordan Belfort (the real-life inspiration behind The Wolf of Wall Street) into a single team might not be a recipe for success.

But it could be.

As one of the winners in the 2012 Hult Prize, my team took a diversified approach by selecting representatives from five countries who had studied developmental economics, finance, civil engineering, physics and journalism--with a chemical engineering professor as our adviser.

Similarly, last year, the winning team included those who had studied life sciences, neuroscience, psychology, computer science and business.

"The person who is motivated by social good may not always be the best executive to take the idea forward to commercialize," says Steve Faktor, founder of IdeaFaktory, an accelerated-growth and innovation consultancy. "There are people who want to save the world. There are people who want to profit from what they do. Then there are people who want to have the intersection of both. And there's having the skill to do it. Those things need to be in alignment in order to bring these ideas to market, because you can drop the ball anywhere along the way."

Don't: Assume You Need Nonprofit Experience
While nonprofit experience can certainly help develop the right business model or framework, it isn't always necessary.

Don't believe me? Ask the experts:

"There are myriad organizations toiling on the ground believing that they understand [social problems] better than anybody else--and some of them do, but we don't believe we have the answers," says Matt Keller, X Prize's director of global learning. "We believe there are people in the world that have never been asked to think about these things and participate in a way that'll blow your mind."

Ashkar says, "While NGOs have a great heart, it's difficult to break the culture of a nonprofit. If you want unordinary results you've got to go to the unusual suspect."

Bottom line: Don't discount anyone's expertise, including your own.

Published on: Sep 22, 2014