Though it’s based in California and supported by the technology world’s most cutting-edge minds, there’s something almost old fashioned about the XPRIZE. Founded in 1995 by the technologist Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE establishes what it calls Grand Challenges—engineering contests, open to anyone who wishes to enter, designed to spur solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems, like spaceflight, medical diagnostics, auto efficiency and most recently, ocean acidification. The idea of setting a technological challenge and offering a cash prize to those who can solve it with a cash prize dates back to the 18th century, when through an act of parliament, the British government established a prize for anyone who could develop a method to determine longitude for seaborne navigation. Offering a few million dollars for developing a cheaper and more effective ocean pH sensor—the most recent XPRIZE challenge—isn’t that different.
Innovation by this kind of competitive inducement fell by the wayside in the 20th century, when governments and large corporations spent freely on wide-ranging research and development. But those open-pocketbook days are over. Private sector investment in R&D is growing more slowly than it did in the 1980s and 90s, while the one-two punch of the sequester and the shutdown threatens to eviscerate government support for innovation. Suddenly a prize-based system is looking much more important. “True innovation is about risk-taking, but large companies worry about the price of their stock falling,” says Diamandis. “And the government isn’t willing to try the ideas you need for a breakthrough.”
So it’s good news that the XPRIZE is about to get bigger. Today the XPRIZE Foundation—which runs the contests—is announcing three ocean-oriented challenges, with a target date of 2020. Together with two other ongoing ocean-related contests—a prize for better oil spill cleanup technology, and an ongoing contest for ocean pH sensors—that will make five prizes in 10 years, marking the biggest bet XPRIZE has placed in a single research category. (XPRIZE will be partnering with the philanthropist Wendy Schmidt, who sponsored the earlier ocean prizes.) “The oceans are such an important part of the planet,” says Paul Bunje, the senior director of oceans at XRPIZE. “It provides the basis of life, and it’s really worth exploring.”
The goals of the three new contests aren’t yet set, and to decide them, XPRIZE is going to try still more crowd-sourcing. The XPRIZE Foundation will seek ideas for the new prizes—you can participate here—though the group’s board of experts will have a say as well. “What makes a great XPRIZE is that it’s something the public cares about, something they can sink their teeth into,” says Diamandis. “Our goal is to ask the public what they care about, so that innovators will go after something that is meaningful and exciting.”
Given the dwindling role governments and corporations play in bankrolling innovation—lighter iPads notwithstanding—maybe it’s time to look to ourselves. Although it wouldn’t hurt if a few members of the crowd had advanced degrees in marine biology too.