Advanced Septic Nitrogen Sensor Challenge

AWARD:  $20,000 USD
DEADLINE: 3/17/17
POSTED: 1/17/17

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) (the Seeker) in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) seeks to identify and spur development of technologies to monitor nitrogen concentration in effluent from advanced Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS). Phase I of this Challenge program is an Ideation Challenge to gain a better understanding of low cost sensor technology that could be utilized to detect and measure nitrate and ammonium, or total nitrogen in the effluent of advanced OWTS. If this initial Ideation is successful, future phases of the Septic Challenge program will include prototype development and testing.

This is an Ideation Challenge with a guaranteed award for at least one submitted solution.

Source: InnoCentive
Challenge ID: 9933926
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Challenge Overview

To protect public health, fragile ecosystems and water resources, local and state decision makers and regulators across the U.S. are considering, encouraging, and in some cases requiring, the widespread installation of advanced onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) designed to significantly remove nitrogen. Regulatory officials are searching for sustainable high nitrogen removal solutions, but need to be sure about the long-term performance of these advanced OWTS technologies. Effective long term management of advanced nitrogen removal OWTS requires data that provides a real time indication of proper functioning over the lifetime of the technologies, thereby protecting public health and the environment and offering a reasonable return on investment for homeowners and communities.  A Septic System Sensor package which would measure the nitrogen concentration in advanced OWTS effluent, coupled with real time reporting would give regulators, managers and communities improved ability to optimize performance and maintain advanced OWTS technologies over their lifetime.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey and The Nature Conservancy seek to identify and spur development of technologies which would allow monitoring of nitrogen in the effluent from advanced OWTS. Technologies currently known to the Seeker for measuring nitrogen in effluent fall short of the desired system in number of ways, including sensitivity, cost, and robustness.

More than 26 million homes in the U.S. have conventional septic systems1 which were never intended to treat residential effluent for nitrogen. Given the large scale environmental and ecological impact of excess nitrogen on the nation’s watersheds and coastal waters, some 2.6 million of these systems are candidates for upgrades to advanced OWTS due to their location along sensitive watersheds.2 Based on expert estimates, the potential market for nitrogen sensor systems is sizeable.

Development of usable and cost effective nitrogen sensor system will likely take time. As a result, this will be a multi-step Challenge program. Phase I of this Challenge program is an Ideation Challenge to gain a better understanding of the state of the technology for low cost nitrogen sensors or sensor systems that can measure nitrate, ammonium, and total nitrogen in the effluent of advanced OWTS. Future phases of this Challenge program will include prototype development and testing.

1 U.S. Census (1990)

2 U.S. EPA, 2006. ETV Case Studies: Demonstrating Program Outcomes, Volume I. EPA/600/R-06/001


This is an Ideation Challenge, but it differs from other Ideation Challenges in that the Seeker desires no rights to the intellectual property of submitted or awarded technology solutions.  The Challenge has the following unique features:

  • There is a guaranteed award.  The awards will be paid to the best design submission(s) as solely determined by the Seeker. The minimum payout will be $20,000.00 with up to a total of $55,000.00 available for awards. At least one award will be no smaller than $5,000.00 and no award will be smaller than $1,000.00.  A truly outstanding submission with supporting laboratory test data may be awarded $25,000.00 or more.
  • Winning Solvers will have the opportunity to attend the Sensor Showcase, which will be held in May 2017.  At the Showcase, Solvers will have the opportunity to present their solution and meet the community of Seekers which includes: the USEPA, TNC, USGS, state and local OWTS regulators, investors, interested nonprofits and foundations, and OWTS manufacturers.
  • In contrast to other Ideation Challenges, Solvers are not required to transfer any intellectual property rights to the Seeker for either submitted or awarded technology solutions.   All intellectual property rights remain with the Solver.

Submissions to this Challenge must be received by 11:59 PM (US Eastern Time) on March 17, 2017.

Late submissions will not be considered.

After the Challenge deadline, the Seekers’ expert panel will review submittals and select Winning Solution(s). All Solvers that submit a proposal will be notified on the status of their submissions; however, no detailed evaluation of individual submissions will be provided.



USEPA will conduct this Challenge under the authority provided by the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (15 U.S.C. § 3719), as amended. The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 limits awards to  individuals that are  citizens or permanent residents of the United States, or to entities that are  incorporated in and whose primary place of business is in the United States, subject to verification by the Seeker before Prizes are awarded.  Further restrictions apply – see the Challenge Specific Agreement for full eligibility details.

Note: Submissions can be entertained from all Solvers regardless of whether they are U.S. citizens/entities. Meritorious submissions from non-U.S. citizens and entities as well as U.S. citizens that may not be prize eligible (see Challenge Specific Agreement) if any, will be recognized in publications issued by the Seeker announcing the results of the competition, such as press releases.  Non-U.S. citizens/permanent residents or non-U.S. entities can also be included on U.S. teams. However, under the authority of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010  (15 U.S.C. § 3719), as amended, the Seeker cannot award prizes — whether monetary or otherwise — to individuals that are not U.S. citizens, not permanent residents of the U.S. or entities not incorporated in and maintaining a primary place of business in the U.S.




The mission of USEPA is to protect human health and the environment. USEPA's purpose is to ensure that: all Americans are protected from significant risks to human health and the environment where they live, learn and work. Environmental protection contributes to making our communities and ecosystems diverse, sustainable and economically productive.

The USGS serves the Nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.

The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends. Our scientists have identified nitrogen pollution from sewage as the single greatest challenge to our coastal habitats, economy and way of life for Long Island, the Middle Atlantic and far beyond. Tackling the issue of nitrogen pollution caused by millions of antiquated septic systems can address this most pressing coastal conservation issue of our time and help restore water quality and coastal habitats.

What is InnoCentive?

InnoCentive is the global innovation marketplace where creative minds solve some of the world's most important problems for cash awards up to $1 million. Commercial, governmental and humanitarian organizations engage with InnoCentive to solve problems that can impact humankind in areas ranging from the environment to medical advancements.

What is an InnoCentive Ideation™ Challenge?

An InnoCentive Ideation™ Challenge is a broad question formulated to obtain access to new ideas, similar to a global brainstorm for producing a breakthrough idea or market survey which may include ideas for a new product line, a new commercial application for a current product, or even a viral marketing idea to recruit new customers. Ideation™ Challenge submissions are typically about two written pages, and Seekers receive a non-exclusive, perpetual license to use all submissions.

In an Ideation™ Challenge, Solvers may:

  • Submit ideas of their own
  • Submit third party information that they have the right to use and further the authority to convey that right and the right to use and develop derivative works to Seekers
  • Submit information considered in the public domain without any limitations on use

Solvers should not reveal any confidential information in their submissions. Often the Ideation™ Challenge will be followed by one or more of the other three Challenge types to further develop the ideas and gain Intellectual Property protection when the concept has been well-defined.

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