Greatly simplified: We provide data obtained from localized
hardware via sensors (mostly cameras) and make it available on the
Internet via an API. Having a good UI for the data is non-trivial, and
usability is crucial for success.
Instead of developing the UI in-house, I am now thinking about proposing to hold a
Rationale: That way we can continue building on top of it. Our core
business is hardware (roughly speaking), and we wouldn't mind having
the public software component open sourced forever.
Can this work? How can we put the plan for a UI contest into a business
plan, i.e. without scaring off investors that are used to UI
wireframes? It's a bit vague, right? There is also the problem that competitors may steal the idea during the
development phase, which the contest is part of. Personally, I am not
too worried about stealing: Setting up the hardware on location is
non-trivial, requires certain industry contacts (we have), permits from
local authorities (we have), and big funding (to be secured).
What others have done:
If something isn't a part of your core business (software, for a hardware company) it's always worth considering outsourcing or offloading it somehow. It frees up more of your time to focus on what you're good at.
Can a competition work? Only you can determine this for your specific situation, but there are definitely times and places where this could be very successful. Of course, it needs to be executed well and properly motivate/reward the right kind of participants.
You do run a risk of spending a bunch of your time designing and managing this contest, and getting no good software out of it. Making software takes a lot of effort, and making good software takes even more. This might be your weakest link. Most successful software competitions that I know of take a day or a weekend to complete. Sounds like you might want something more involved.
To address your question about presenting it in a business plan without scaring off investors, let me ask you a question. Are you actively pitching to investors right now? Do you need the investors to run the competition?
If the answer is no, you could just do the competition and see what happens. If it fails, chalk it up to something you tried that didn't work and move on to the next thing. It drops out of your future plans, and it becomes more or less irrelevant to investors. If it works, then you're one step closer to the finish line, and people will be happier to invest.
If you need the investors before the competition, I'm quite certain that there is a way to present it that wouldn't scare them off. Like I said, it is a sound business move to try to outsource work that isn't a part of your primary purpose, and investors generally understand that. I suppose if I were in your situation, that's the angle I would take.
I think most investors would not reject you based solely on the fact that you've decided to try to outsource the software development through a competition. You should be prepared to explain why you think that's the best choice (research your alternatives) but this idea shouldn't be a deal killer with investors.