Rather than award money to honor past achievements or directly fund research, the X Prize Foundation believes in tapping our competitive and entrepreneurial spirit to incite innovation with millions in cash prizes.
“True innovation is about risk-taking, but large companies worry about the price of their stock falling,” said techno-optimist Peter Diamandis, who founded the foundation in 1995. “And the government isn’t willing to try the ideas you need for a breakthrough.” Anyone may enter these engineering contests to help solve Grand Challenges like medical diagnostics, carbon reduction, and literacy.
Last Tuesday, the foundation announced their most ambitious commitment to date: a multi-year effort to launch three additional ocean challenges by 2020.
The Ocean Initiative builds on two existing ocean-related contests -- a $1.4 million prize for better oil spill cleanup technology and an ongoing $2 million competition for ocean pH sensors. Together, that makes five prizes in 10 years, marking the biggest bet X Prize has placed in a single research category, Time reported.
That same day, Diamandis accepted the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Leadership Award at the Hearst Tower in New York.
"People think we're living in this amazing time of innovation -- we haven't seen anything yet," he said during a Q&A session that afternoon. The oceans, he added, are in a sort of "dead zone" of innovation. They're just too huge.
But Diamandis stressed that it’s not just about innovation: “The only rational reason to do an X Prize is to create a new economy.” If breakthroughs just sit on the shelf, no one cares. What matters is that they go into business and change the status quo. To clarify, in material economies, goods are exchanged; with an innovation economy, “the currency is your ideas," he added.
After the awards ceremony, I met Paul Bunje, director of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize, over cocktails and beer on the 44th floor. And he reiterated: time and time again, we’ve been able to innovate our way out of a problem.
The goals of the three new contests aren’t set yet. The X Prize Ocean Ambassador program will crowdsource the challenges to be tackled. Aside from academics, NGOs, and government bodies, “there are additional people out there with unique insights. We want to put them to work," Bunje told Popular Mechanics.
When it comes to ocean health... it's not hard to rattle off a litany of problems that need innovative solutions, including pollution, dead zones that result from fertilizer runoff, habitat destruction, ocean acidification resulting from rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Instead of tackling those problems in isolation, the goal is to create a series of competitions that together can catalyze broad changes in the way the oceans are studied, regulated, and used.
"People don't really value the oceans, in a monetary sense, because we don't know enough about how to use them sustainably," said Bunje, who sat on the Big Impact of Tiny Sensors panel earlier that day. "But that starts with the data."
Images: X Prize (thumbnail) / J. Fang (below)