X Prize Founder Peter Diamandis Targets Breakthroughs With More Incentive Prizes

It has been almost five years since a team of aerospace entrepreneurs funded by a software billionaire claimed the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million prize competition to develop the first reusable private spacecraft.

Since then, the frustrated space enthusiast who established the X Prize as a way to re-ignite astronautical innovation, Peter Diamandis, has won some prizes of his own. He was the inaugural winner of the 2006 Heinlein Prize for his efforts to deliver humanity to space; a Lindbergh Award in recognition of his pioneering work in creating incentive prizes; and an Arthur C. Clarke Award for innovation.

As the chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, based near Los Angeles in Playa Vista, CA, the 48-year-old Diamandis says his goal now is to make the X Prize “the gold standard of incentive prizes that are well-promoted, well-executed, and hit the mark” in terms of targeting technology breakthroughs in such fields as energy, astronautics, transportation, medicine, genomics, and exploration.

In anticipation of his talk at San Diego’s MIT Enterprise Forum, I recently asked Diamandis how the X Prize Foundation has changed since it wrote a $10 million check in 2004 to spacecraft designer Burt Rutan and his investor, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

peter_diamandis_42709For one thing, Diamandis says, the foundation has grown almost tenfold—from five people to a staff of 45. The foundation also is working more rigorously now on what he calls “prize methodology,” developing the principles, procedures, and rules for prizes that will drive key breakthroughs in such fields as life sciences, exploration, energy, global development, education, and the environment. Among other things, he says the group has been working with scientists at UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography to develop prize methodologies for a possible “Ocean X Prize” in three possible areas:

—Ocean exploration. Since the U.S. deep submergence vehicle Alvin was launched 45 years ago and Russia’s MIR submersibles are over 20 years old, Diamandis says the foundation is considering a prize to create new technologies needed to explore the “Challenger Deep” of the Mariana Trench, 7 miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

—Ocean floor mapping. Diamandis says we know more about the surface of Mars than about the bottom of the ocean. So a prize for mapping the ocean floor could encourage the development of new underwater mapping technologies.

—Ocean conservation. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a region of the Pacific Ocean where plastic trash accumulates into vast masses of unsinkable drifting litter. The X Prize Foundation is considering a prize that would spur the development of innovative ways to “heal” such garbage patches.

To Diamandis, it is only a matter of time before incentive prizes become as important to innovation as venture capital. Diamandis says he’s heard Rick Burnes say that venture capital also seemed like a “very strange idea” in 1970, when Burnes co-founded Charles River Ventures in Waltham, MA. “Now venture capital is everywhere,” Diamandis says. “I think the same thing will happen with incentive prizes.”

With the success of the Ansari X Prize, similar … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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