NASA Tournament Lab


ARSX2022 - Innovations for a Circular Economy in Agriculture

Ready to be an agent for change? How will you cultivate a circular economy in agriculture? You can win $100,000 to test out your idea.
3 x $100k

Challenge Overview

This is an internal challenge for the Agriculture Research Service (ARS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Team leaders must be an ARS scientist or post-doctoral researcher.

The theme for ARSX2022 is the Circular Economy in Agriculture.  We are looking to make a paradigm shift from a linear to a circular economy. Your ideas will transform our approach from linear processes that take starting materials and end up with products and waste streams to integrated processes in a circular economy that take starting materials and produce products and starting materials for other processes.  By developing regenerative processes and closing gaps in existing loops, we can use our natural resources more efficiently.

This challenge will award up to three teams submitting the most compelling proposals up to $100,000 each to demonstrate proof of concept for their ideas.  If you’ve had a bold and/or unconventional idea in this area in the back of your mind, now is the time to act!  

In ARSX2022, the teams submitting the 10 most compelling ideas will be selected as Phase 1 winners (finalists).  These teams will have several weeks to participate in an innovation forum, to refine their ideas, and to build out their pitches.  At the end of Phase 2, finalists will present their pitches to a panel of judges and an audience of their peers and colleagues.  The judges will award up to $100,000 each to the top three teams.

In addition to the three $100,000 prizes, this challenge offers participants a chance to build new relationships across disciplines and geographies, and Phase 1 winners will have access to both group and individual pitch coaching.




Challenge Guidelines

This challenge is open to ARS personnel only.  Team leads/captains must be scientists or post-doctoral researchers.

External collaborators are permitted only on ARS-led teams. Please see the Rules section below.


Restoring our Planet with Circular, Sustainable, Agriculture and Food Systems

Advances in U.S. food and agricultural systems since the 1930s have quadrupled the supply of food and fiber.  These increases have been driven by improvements in genetics, agronomy, mechanization, and other innovations, but they have come at a cost to our environment and our planet’s overall health. We now recognize the importance of ensuring that our agricultural practices are sustainable - for example through performance of life cycle analyses or through maintenance of soil health.  But we need to do more.  A 2021 report notes that “the food system is responsible for 21-37% of total net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions when including pre- and post-production activities” (Pörtner, H.O., 2021).  Successfully addressing the challenges arising from climate change and other environmental concerns will require a paradigm shift in agricultural and food systems from linear processes to a circular economy (Basso, B. et al, 2021). ARSX2022 is all about sharing your ideas to help build this emerging circular economy in agriculture.

To highlight the timeliness of this year’s ARSX topic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently renewed their joint agency agreement on reducing food loss and waste, and the Biden-Harris Administration issued a factsheet in September 2021 focused along similar lines. This current interest and awareness presents opportunities for those with high-risk, high-reward research proposals that will ultimately support the necessary paradigm shift to achieve circular agriculture systems. 

The opportunity for circular systems in agriculture includes technologies and practices to retain and regenerate soil health, increasing the nutrition density of our foods while not compromising taste and sensory experience, integration of traditional waste from food production back into the ecosystem or as useful co-products, and more. Solutions that can employ a circular systems paradigm can reincorporate materials through the entire production and supply chain and provide a sustainable and resilient agriculture system needed to meet the goal of zero waste agriculture.   

A circular economy is a complex, dynamic, and highly integrated thing.  Many different elements must come together to successfully achieve the whole.  We believe each of you may have an idea that can become part of those necessary elements.  Approaches like those listed below will all contribute to an emerging circular economy in agriculture.

  • Regenerating natural systems by controlling finite sources and expanding renewable resource flows
  • Optimizing yields with reduced external inputs for production and keeping materials in the technical or biological cycles for as long as possible
  • Designing processes to reduce or eliminate pollution and waste from production and consumption

Ready to learn more about the ARSX experience?  Then read on.  If you are uncertain about this year’s theme or just want a little more inspiration, click on the Ways to Contribute to the Circular Economy document in the Resources section.  There you’ll find some questions to help get your creative juices flowing.  This list of ideas and suggestions is not intended to be limiting or prescriptive.  So if you have an idea that defies categorization, we want to hear about it!

Be part of ARSX2022 - The Circular Economy in Agriculture and submit your ideas.  Participation in ARSX2022 is open to any ARS scientist or post-doctoral researcher.  We’re always interested in creative and impactful ideas that are rooted in science, but this challenge seeks to encourage bold, aspirational, and high risk ideas.  Think of this as an opportunity to test out your idea - it might be the start of something great, or it might fail smart and fast.  Either way, ARSX offers a new path for uncommon scientists and their uncommon ideas.  If you can draw a line from your idea to how it will ultimately enable a circular economy within agricultural activities, then this challenge is for you!  (Hint, we believe this challenge is for all of you and can engage all the national program areas of ARS.)  


How did previous ARSX participants benefit from the process?

Previous ARSX awardees all cite the ability to connect and collaborate with other ARS scientists across diverse geographies and disciplines as one of the top benefits.  We hear repeatedly that ARSX gave individuals an opportunity to build teams and work with those that they wouldn’t normally.  Many teams plan to continue their collaborations into future research endeavors.  Whether participants, finalists, or awardees - they all appreciate the opportunity to pursue different ideas with different collaborators.  Another aspect of ARSX that gets a lot of positive feedback is the pitch coaching that finalists receive.  This training in non-technical pitching is an opportunity to build skills that can be essential to successfully communicating your ideas and projects.

The ARSX2021 visionaries all approached greenhouse gas reductions in different ways, but every team mentioned the pleasure of building new teams and having a place to pursue different ideas.  Bryan Emmett, Claire Phillips, Ryan Hayes, Rod Venterea, and Florence Sessoms won for their approach to developing biological nitrification inhibition (BNI) in cover crops as a cost-effective and climate-resilient N2O mitigation solution.  They noted so many positive aspects of participating in ARSX.  In addition to team building and pitch coaching, they also enjoyed being able to use the ARSX platform as a way to develop and further their idea and being able to engage with ARS administrators.  Dan Martin and his team proposed a novel technique to enhance rainfall from convective clouds by releasing electrically charged water droplets into clouds.  They were thrilled to have been selected as one of the three ARSX2021 winning teams, but what they really valued was the journey through the competition process.

The three winners of ARSX2020 had very different approaches for keeping disruptive agricultural pests and pathogens at bay, but they all appreciated an opportunity to get their ideas - ones that might only be tangentially related to their regular research projects - out in the open.  ARSX2020 Visionaries Robert Shatters, W. Rodney Cooper, and Michelle Heck used their winnings to support automation and greenhouse and laboratory evaluations of their Plant-Host Activated-Cell Transplantation (PHACT) technology at four different USDA sites.  They appreciated how the ARSX process promoted team building across multiple disciplines and helped develop a sense of camaraderie among the team members.  The team attributes part of their success in applying for and winning a $15 million NIFA SCRI ECDRE grant to the strong team building that occurred during the process of participating in ARSX2020.  As a result of his ARSX award, ARSX2020 Visionary Vincent Ricigliano was nominated to receive a young investigator’s award and was invited to submit a proposal for a grant based on his idea for feed-based therapeutics.

If you are selected as one of the 10 finalists, you will be invited to participate in the ARSX2022 Innovation Forum.  This will be your opportunity to refine and strengthen your idea by getting input from relevant subject matter experts, by possibly building out your team to address gaps, and by receiving both individual and group pitch coaching.  At the end of the Innovation Forum and training period, you will pitch your idea to a panel of judges and an audience of your peers and colleagues.  The judges will select up to three winners, and each winner or winning team will receive up to $100,000 to demonstrate proof of concept for their ideas.  Depending on the outcomes from initial work on winning ideas, there is the possibility for some of them to become funded research projects.

The goal of ARSX is to encourage ideas and collaborations that are outside the box and possibly quite early stage, so your ideas will be evaluated primarily based on their potential impact and overall novelty.  Secondary criteria include feasibility and collaboration.  See the Judging Criteria section for more details.



Up to 10 Phase 1 finalist teams will be eligible to participate in an innovation forum to refine their original ideas, build out their teams, and receive pitch coaching.  This is a unique opportunity to interact with colleagues from other parts of the organization, to get visibility within ARS, and to develop some new skills.

Up to 3 Phase 2 winners will each receive up to $100,000 to support proof of concept work on winning ideas.

Additionally, all participants will benefit from the ARSX experience.  Submitting your idea to ARSX2022, will afford you the following:

  • Opportunity to get your idea reviewed by experts outside of ARS (external evaluation panelists include experts, entrepreneurs, and innovators with perspectives that are outside of agriculture)
  • Visibility both within and outside of ARS
  • Additional funding opportunities from the Innovation Fund Panel that are only open to ARSX2022 participants



Challenge Process


Challenge launchMay 5, 2022
Phase 1 submissions dueJune 24, 2022 
Phase 1 evaluationsJune 24 - July 15, 2021 
Phase 1 semi-finalists selectedJuly 15, 2022
Phase 1 winners announcedAugust 4, 2022
Phase 2 innovation forum and trainingAugust 4 - September 15, 2022             
Live pitches, final event, and winners announcedSeptember 15, 2022


Judging Criteria

Phase 1 Criteria

Section DescriptionOverall Weight
Potential ImpactThe potential impact of the proposed idea to enable a circular economy.35
NoveltyThe proposed idea creatively addresses the problem and is substantially different from other currently used approaches.40

The proposed idea is:

  • Well-considered, with key risks identified and possible mitigation strategies identified
  • Technically feasible, supported by scientific rationale or existing data, 
  • Practical, and could eventually be widely adopted
  • Supported by rationale that demonstrates critical path thinking

 Phase 2 Criteria 

Section DescriptionOverall Weight
Potential ImpactPotential impact is higher than that of other solutions. 30
NoveltyApproach is creative or oblique and embodies the ARSX mentality of recognizing “high risk/high reward” ideas.30
Test of the assumptions/hypothesesPrize money will help derisk the idea; critical experiments are identified that will help an approach demonstrate success or inform experimental pivot after a failure. 30
Building the right skill setThe proposed research is supported with the appropriate skills needed. 10


Submission Form

IP Acknowledgment

ARS will be responsible for filing patents and IP protection for innovations created by employees and affiliates of ARS. Non-ARS judges and participants will need to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) prior to accessing information submitted in an application. Participants can be assured that any IP, whether granted or contained within a provisional application, will be protected through the application and review process of the competition.


Please confirm you have read and agree to the intellectual property acknowledgement



For each team member please provide the following: Name, Email address, ARS research unit or external affiliation, ARS area, and the area of expertise being contributed to the proposal. 


Please note who is the team leader.

Formatted text

(1000 characters max)

ARS eligibilityThe team captain must be an ARS scientist or a postdoctoral researcher.  Please confirm that the team captain is either an ARS scientist or post-doctoral researcher.Y/N
External collaboratorsDo you have any collaborators that are external to ARS? (Yes, we have external collaborators/ No, all team members are ARS scientists and/or postdoctoral researchers)Y/N
If you have answered “Yes” your team contains external collaborators, please list each team member who is not a US citizen or permanent resident. (Please review the rules for the process to ensure that federal sanctions do not prohibit participation of non-US external contractors)

Formatted text

(1000 characters max)


Please provide an overview of your proposed approach:

  • What is your idea and why will it work?
  • How is it relevant to the ARSX2022 focus area of the Circular Economy in Agriculture?
  • What inspired this idea?

Formatted text

(2000 characters max)

Potential ImpactPlease discuss the potential impact of your proposed approach.

Formatted text

(6000 characters max)

NoveltyHow is your proposed approach different from other existing solutions?  How does it demonstrate creativity or novelty?  Does the proposed approach use a novel technology, an existing technology in a novel way, or something else?  

Formatted text

(3000 characters max)


Please discuss the feasibility of your idea:

  • What is the supporting evidence or scientific rationale for it?
  • What will you need to do in order to achieve proof of concept?
  • What are the three key milestones you will need to achieve in the next year?  
  • What do you estimate is the Application Readiness Level (ARL)? Why do you believe this?
  • If successful, what might be potential barriers to its widespread adoption?  How could they be addressed?

Formatted text

(6000 characters max)

CollaborationPlease discuss the areas of expertise and contributions that each team member brings to your proposed approach.  If your team wins, how do you anticipate each team member’s role evolving as you move into design and implementation activities?

Formatted text

(3000 characters max)

Supplemental information

You can upload up to three separate .PDF files. 


Please limit these attachments to no more than 2 pages each. These supporting documents can be used to substantiate claims made in your essay questions addressing the Technical Submission Criteria (POTENTIAL IMPACT, NOVELTY, and FEASIBILITY). If you choose to include supporting documents, you must reference them somewhere within this submission form.



Participation Eligibility:

The challenge is open to all ARS personnel, but team leaders/captains must be ARS scientists or postdoctoral researchers.  External collaborators are permitted on teams led by an eligible ARS team captain.  External collaborators may originate from any country, as long as United States federal sanctions do not prohibit participation.  To determine if any federal sanctions apply, team leaders/captains must check with the Office of International Research Engagement and Cooperation (OIREC).  Please contact the OIREC international affairs specialist assigned to the external collaborator’s country (see: )

Please note that participant and applicant are used interchangeably. 

Submissions must be made in English. All challenge-related communication will be in English. 

No specific qualifications or expertise in the fields of agriculture, nutrition, or climate change is required. Prize organizers encourage individuals and cross-disciplinary teams to compete and propose new solutions. 

Ownership of Intellectual Property: 

ARS will be responsible for filing patents and IP protection for innovations created by employees and affiliates of ARS. Non-ARS judges and participants will need to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) prior to accessing information submitted in an application. Participants can be assured that any IP, whether granted or contained within a provisional application, will be protected through the application and review process of the competition.

Applicant will retain all right, title and other ownership interests in Applicant Inventions and Applicant Copyrighted Works. Applicant will also retain all right, title and other ownership interests in Applicant’s submission and in all inventions, patents, patent applications, designs, copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, software, source code, object code, processes, formulae, ideas, methods, know-how, techniques, devices, creative works, works of authorship, publications, and/or other intellectual property not included in the definition of Applicant Technology (“Intellectual Property”) developed by Applicant during the Challenge.  Your own employment agreement is still in effect.

Selection of Winners:

Based on the winning criteria, prizes will be awarded per the Judging Criteria section above. In the case of a tie, the winner(s) will be selected based on the highest votes from the Judges.

Additional Information

  • By participating in the challenge, each competitor agrees to submit only their original idea. Any indication of "copying" amongst competitors is grounds for disqualification.
  • All applications will go through a process of due diligence; any application found to be misrepresentative, plagiarized, or sharing an idea that is not their own will be automatically disqualified.
  • All ineligible applicants will be automatically removed from the competition with no recourse or reimbursement.
  • No purchase or payment of any kind is necessary to enter or win the competition.
  • Void wherever restricted or prohibited by law.

Challenge Updates

1 Month Remains!

May 24, 2022, 6 a.m. PDT by Lulu

We are just 1 month away from our submission deadline for ARSX2022 - Innovations for a Circular Economy in Agriculture!

This message is to remind you to complete and finalize your submission before the deadline on June 24, 2022 5pm Eastern Time (New York/USA). The HeroX platform is automated so your submission must be finalized before that date and time for it to be considered for the judging stage.

View a how-to video on completing your submission here.

If you have any questions regarding the competition, please don’t hesitate to ask us directly or leave a comment on the forum.

If you encounter any technical issues, please contact


Working from Home

May 20, 2022, 6 a.m. PDT by Lulu

If you’re used to working in an office environment, the process of working on a crowdsourced project can be daunting. Luckily we’ve been doing this for a while, and we’d like to share with you the tips that we’ve learned along the way.

Here are three tips to optimize your work from home experience:

1. Focus on results, not time spent working

In an office environment, we’re often led to think that we should be working eight hours a day, five days a week. In reality, not all of these hours are productive. When you’re able to control your own time at home, it’s a good idea to structure your day around specific tasks and goals.

2. Find the tools that work for you

If you’re working on your project with a team, you’ll need to find a way to connect with them remotely. Your team members may be from all around the world, and it’s important to figure out an effective communication strategy. Slack is a great tool for instant messaging, group chats, document sharing and reminders. For video calls, Zoom is a good go-to.

3. Boost your team’s morale

It’s easy to feel isolated while you’re working remotely. If you’re working with a team, it’s a good idea to schedule regular check-ins to connect with each other and boost morale. Zoom meetings don’t have to be all work, all the time. Take the time to connect with your team and find ways to support one another.


Teamwork makes the Dream Work

May 18, 2022, 6 a.m. PDT by Lulu

Have you thought about forming a team to compete in the ARSX2022 - Innovations for a Circular Economy in Agriculture?

At this point in the challenge, it’s normal to start feeling a bit overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ve hit a roadblock, or you’re noticing the gaps in your own skillset. Forming a team is a great way to overcome these hurdles.

It will take time to form a team, so start reaching out to people now. You can connect with people in the forum, or you can browse the whole HeroX community by specialization at

Why form a team? 

1. Keep each other accountable

We all know that deadlines are tough, and it’s especially difficult to commit to a schedule by yourself. Creating checkpoints and milestones with your team members will help you keep each other on track.

2. Share skills

Everyone’s got a different set of skills. Have a great idea for a project, but need someone to help make it a reality? Got an innovative technical idea, but need help pulling it into an overall project? You need a team!

You can share expertise and specialized knowledge with your teammates. You’ll learn a ton, and your project will be all the better for it.

3. Reduce the workload

Why do all the work yourself? Divide and conquer the workload to save time and ease burnout. If you have an off week, your team can pick up the slack — and vice versa.

4. Make it fun

Your team will be by your side through all the highs and lows of the process, and they will make it all the more fun. This is also a great way to meet people with a shared set of interests. Just think, these may be your new best buds.


Get Talking on the Forum

May 16, 2022, 6 a.m. PDT by Lulu

Feeling stuck? Have questions, thoughts, or ideas about the challenge so far, and need a place to take them? That’s what the ARSX2022 - Innovations for a Circular Economy in Agriculture forum is for.

The forum is a great way to gain insights and generate ideas about different aspects of the challenge. Use the forum to ask questions, help out your fellow innovators, and maybe even make a few friends along the way. 

You can browse through the forum to see what people have already been saying. To ask a question, click “New Topic” and write out your message.

HeroX checks the forum regularly, so it’s a good way to touch base with us directly.

See you on the forum!


The ARSX2022 - Innovations for a Circular Economy in Agriculture is accepting your solutions!

May 14, 2022, 6 a.m. PDT by Lulu

If you’re ready to begin working on your idea how you will cultivate a circular economy in agriculture, then click the ‘Solve this Challenge’ button to register. Once you’ve accepted the legal agreement, you’ll be officially signed up as a competitor.

If you’re ever feeling stuck, the challenge forum is the first place to go. The forum is there for you to ask questions and seek advice. Bounce ideas around, get to know your fellow innovators, and maybe even form a team (more on that later). 

Now get cracking! We can’t wait to see what you come up with.