February 27, 2019 update: The results are in. Learn about the winners of the NextGen Cup Challenge.

Taking a page from the race to space and solving complex artificial intelligence or statistical business problems, coffee giant Starbucks will award $1 million to inventors who can design a sustainable cup, cup lids, and other materials used in coffee shops. If you have a better idea for a hot cup, straws, or cup cuffs, the deadline to enter is November 5. Get busy, enter the NextGen Cup Challenge, and change the fate of 600 billion paper and plastic cups globally.

Starbucks is aiming high, offering to help the winning entries build companies to deliver their improved cups to consumers. The deadline for entry is November 5, 2018. The company uses approximately six billion cups a year, 1 percent of the global total, but wants a more sustainable product to be available to everyone. It is working with Closed Loop Partners, an investor in circular economy companies. Up to six entrants will receive a share of the $1 million prize and an invitation to join Closed Loop Partners’ business accelerator program, which coaches startups to success.

Closed Loop Partners is backed by a group of Fortune 50 companies, including Walmart, Coca-Cola, 3M, Johnson & Johnson, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever, among others. These external research and development projects will save them hundreds of millions of dollars in potentially fruitless internal investments. A million dollars deployed to solve big problems will lower their costs and improve corporate environmental performance.

Sustainable Cups, Sustainable Business

A planet in chaos is terrible for business.

Starbucks’ savings, if a new cup is produced, will not be purely financial. Delivering its coffee in sustainable cups will make the company more sustainable — it will be better positioned to survive and thrive as the economy shifts to a green, circular model in which everything made will be unmanufactured and reused. Starbucks will also earn more than $1 million in goodwill from the public, which has grown painfully aware of the impact of climate change.

Starbucks cup photographed on Friday, March 16, 2018. (Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks)

With the myriad problems faced by the world, prize contests for innovative design are essential. Their biggest benefit is the ability to bring ideas from all over the world to bear on solutions. One company cannot invent an improved paper cup for less than $1 million, but thousands of teams can. These contests would have been impractical before the internet appeared, which is why so few prize programs existed until this century.

The prize-for-solutions approach was pioneered by the Ansari X Prize, which paid $10 million to the first company that delivered a spacecraft that could be launched, recovered, and launched again. The winner, ultra-light aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, introduced the rocket-launched airstrip-landable SpaceShipOne, which is the design Virgin Galactic will use to launch tourists into space in the coming year.

Do you have a better cup idea? Have you imagined a better cup lid? Get your entry together and join the race for sustainability. We’ll keep you apprised of the results.

By Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch is the publisher at Earth911.com and Director of Digital Strategy and Innovation at Intentional Futures, an insight-to-impact consultancy in Seattle. A veteran tech journalist, Mitch is passionate about helping people understand sustainability and the impact of their decisions on the planet.