Competitions spur creativity and promise tangible results to address some of the world’s biggest problems
Just over three years ago, engineer and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis took thewinners of his Progressive Auto XPRIZE competition on a victory lap through New York City. There was cause for celebration—three teams had each met the competition’s main criteria of building an automobile capable of traveling at least 100 miles per gallon (or the electric equivalent, measured as MPGe).
The biggest winner, however, was the XPRIZE itself. Following up on its triumphant 2004 Ansari XPRIZE forspacecraft development, the nonprofit XPRIZE Foundation had once again laid out a bold challenge and successfully stimulated remarkable results. XPRIZE has four new competitions underway covering ocean science, medical technology and lunar exploration, with several more in the works.
With government funding for science and technology hard to come by, and large corporations increasingly risk-averse, such competitions are a growing source of inspiration to entrepreneurs worldwide.XPRIZE plans to award its biggest prize yet—up to $40 million—by the end of 2015 to a private company that can land safely on the surface of the moon, travel 500 meters above, below or on the lunar surface, and send back two “mooncasts” to Earth. The organization also expects to have three separate ocean-related competitions in play by 2020, in addition to the newly launched $2-million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE to develop sensors for studying ocean acidification by May 2015.
The foundation is considering dozens of new ideas for future competitions—including one to develop a new method of wireless power transmission and another to explore possibilities for orbital space debris removal.Scientific American spoke with Jason Fagone, a journalist specializing in technology, about what makes the XPRIZE tick and why these competitions have been so successful at sparking innovation. Fagone, author of the recently released bookIngenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring and the Race to Revive America, about the 2010 Progressive Auto XPRIZE, discusses how these competitions level the playing field for inventors and motivate the development of new ideas—ideas that might otherwise have died quietly in, say, a barn somewhere in Illinois.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]