Dr. Peter H. Diamandis and the X Prize Foundation are changing the world, one multi-million-dollar competition at a time.
We’ve all had crazy ideas and fantasies about taking steps to right a significant wrong or cure a horrible injustice. But how many of us have had dreams about changing the world? Dreams that seem too big to handle? A little crazy or insane? “I’m fond of saying, ‘The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea,’” offers Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, a man not only familiar with crazy ideas, but who has a penchant for making them come true. “If it wasn’t a crazy idea the day before, then it isn’t a breakthrough.”
Diamandis was born in the Bronx in 1961, the year JFK challenged Congress to land a man on the moon and return him safely within the decade — a crazy idea that was realized by NASA and the Apollo 11 crew on July 20, 1969. “My passion for space came at the age of 10 in my 4th grade science class in Mount Vernon, New York,” Diamandis recalls. “I was a shy kid with a knack for science and math. One day, my friend Kenny was giving a report on the planets. At the same time, high above our heads, the drama of Apollo 13 was unfolding. In that moment, I felt like there was nothing more important in the world than exploring space.”
Diamandis’ dream led him to MIT, where he began studies in biology and physics. “I realized, other than Air Force test pilots, NASA was accepting more physicians into the astronaut program than any other profession,” he says. “In 1983, I applied to and was accepted to a medical program offered jointly by Harvard and MIT.”
Diamandis attended Harvard for three years before returning to MIT to get his undergraduate and graduate degrees in aerospace engineering and then returned to Harvard to finish his M.D.
Passionate and driven, Diamandis changed the course of his dream. “I realized that my chances of being a NASA astronaut were lower than my chances of being an NBA All-Star,” he attests. “Well, I’m 5’5” so that wasn’t an option.”
While working on his pilot’s license, Diamandis came across the book “The Spirit of St. Louis,” Charles Lindbergh’s account of his famous solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Within the pages of Lindbergh’s tale, Diamandis learned that Lindbergh’s inspiration for the flight came from the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 award for the individual who could fly an between New York and Paris. It was a contest that inspired Lindbergh’s feat in aviation and made commercial flight a reality instead of a dream.
“I thought, ‘What an efficient way to cause a breakthrough!’” Diamandis exclaims. “And being this 9-year-old kid at heart who wanted to fly in space, that was an amazing opportunity to create this space flight prize.”
That inspiration started a five-year journey for the doctor/aerospace engineer/geneticist/dreamer, and he eventually happened on an Iranian brother and sister duo, Amir and Anousheh Ansari, who saw the potential of his dream. Thus, the Ansari X Prize was born: a $10 million competition to motivate private enterprise to create a viable manned spaceflight vehicle that could hold three people and break earth’s orbit to reach a height of 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the surface of the planet — and return safely to earth — twice in two weeks.
This seemingly impossible challenge inspired 26 teams from seven different countries to take their shot. In 2004, Scaled Composites, a company funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, wound up winning with its SpaceShipOne, and the technology was then purchased by Richard Branson to create Virgin Galactic.
The success of this impossibility inspired Diamandis to expand the X Prize Foundation to create more prizes, more challenges and tackle more impossible dreams.
“The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself!”
Next up was the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X CHALLENGE, a competition to create a vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL) vehicle for lunar exploration. The prize spanned three years, from 2006 to 2009, and encompassed several levels of testing that eventually required the wining team to launch a vehicle, fly it laterally, land it on a moon-simulated surface (complete with craters and boulders), refuel it, launch it again, fly laterally back to its origin and land it safely on a landing pad. Masten Space Systems, closely followed by Armadillo Aerospace, won the $1 million prize.
Still ongoing, there are currently 26 teams vying for the larger Google Lunar X PRIZE, a $30 million award for the first team to send a robot to the moon that can travel 500 meters over the lunar surface to send photos, video and data back to Earth by 2015.
Although it may seem like X PRIZE has set its sights only on the stars and heavens, the X PRIZE Foundation’s manifesto is to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity through high-profile competitions that motivate individuals, companies and organizations across all boundaries to solve the grand challenges that are currently restricting humanity’s progress. In addition to space exploration, they’re creating prizes in ocean exploration, life sciences, energy and environment, education and global development.
The Board of Trustees for X PRIZE reads like a who’s-who of technology and information: James Cameron, Arianna Huffington, Ray Kurzweil (one of the leading inventors of our time: developer for the first CCD flat-bed scanner, first print-to-speech machine, first grand piano music synthesizer, etc.), Elon Musk (co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors), Larry Page (co-founder of Google), Ali Velshi (CNN chief business correspondent and anchor of Your Money and World Business Today), Richard Garriott de Cayeux (the creator of the Ultima computer series), James M. Gianopulos (chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment) and many more.
After starting the Google Lunar X PRIZE, the Foundation broke away from space exploration to concentrate more on the issues that are of dire concern right here on terra firma. Progressive Automotive Insurance got behind the next X PRIZE: a competition to create a mainstream vehicle that was production-ready and capable of 100 miles per gallon energy equivalent (MPGe). Soon, 43 teams with 53 different designs passed the initial design phase of the competition, showing, quite clearly, that there was considerable interest from the private sector (beyond the big car manufacturers, which elected not to participate in the competition) to rethink how efficient mainstream personal transportation can be.
Among the competing teams of entrepreneurial mavericks were two universities, Cornell and Western Washington and a team from West Philadelphia High School, which had two cars in competition. The prize culminated in an 11-day performance and speed evaluation of the finalists at the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich.
In addition to the competition, X PRIZE launched an educational program funded by a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to reach out to students from K-12 to help them learn about advanced vehicle technologies, energy efficiency climate change, alternative fuels, and the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) behind efficient vehicle
The prize also included a student design competition called DASH+ that challenged high schools to design the dashboard of the future by incorporating feedback mechanisms to help drivers maximize fuel efficiency and reduce environmental impact.
Following the Progressive competition and in the wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, X PRIZE launched the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE to inspire a significant advancement in oil cleanup technology — which was, unfortunately, proven to be antiquated and inadequate to disastrous and catastrophic degrees by the BP spill. A $1 million prize was awarded to Elastec/Marine American for their efficient ability to remove oil from the water. Testing for the competing teams took place at the National Oil Spill Response Research & Renewable Energy Test Facility called OHMSETT quietly housed at the U.S. Naval Weapons Station Earle near Redbank, New Jersey.
“I work from the philosophy that there is no problem that can’t be solved,” Diamandis professes. “Apply the right minds, technology and capital to it and anything can be accomplished. It takes the right incentive to gather the best people to a particular challenge. I think incentive prizes are able to drive breakthroughs in a way that nothing else can.”
This past January, Diamandis stood beside Dr. Paul Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Qualcomm, as well as the CEO of the Qualcomm Foundation, as Jacobs delivered the keynote address to a packed crowd in Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). During the address, Jacobs announced that the Qualcomm Foundation had joined forces with X PRIZE to back its latest endeavor, the Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE.
That’s right, kids, you read that right: Tricorder.
Inspired by the technology in the original Star Trek television series created by Gene Roddenberry, Diamandis and his team at X PRIZE dreamed up turning science fiction into a science-reality with a handheld personal heath device that helps detect up to 15 common diseases. “There is a dire need to improve access to healthcare globally and provide consumers with an opportunity to be active participants in their own health,” Diamandis shared during the keynote. “The Qualcomm Tricorder X PRIZE will incent the creation of technologies that can empower the consumer with the ability to decide when, where and how to seek health information and care.”
The Tricorder prize is a $10 million pool that will go to the team that develops a mobile platform that accurately diagnoses a set of 15 diseases across 30 consumers in three days. Teams must also deliver this information in a way that provides a compelling consumer experience while capturing real-time, critical health metrics such as blood pressure, respiratory rate and temperature.
As the X PRIZE Foundation looks toward the future, it has even grander plans. The company, quietly nestled at the edge of the oceanfront community of Playa Vista, California, is planning on doubling in size within the next year. “We’re looking at a series of X PRIZES in broad areas,” Diamandis notes. “We’re looking at reinventing how we map the ocean floor, reinventing education and learning, how do we change the way our kids learn domestically and around the world, including the 70 million primary-schoolage kids in Africa — how do we give them access to learning technologies?
“We’re working on an autonomous auto X PRIZE,” Diamandis continues, “an X PRIZE on earthquake detection, a prize on solving childhood obesity and a solution to Alzheimer’s Disease. We’re working on a prize that would develop a plastic that would be completely biodegradable in ocean salinity, temperatures and UV radiation… We’re looking at all the fundamentals: water, food, healthcare, education. We’ve got 80 different prize concepts that we’re working on. The question is: How do we accelerate breakthroughs in those areas? We’re looking at fields that are stuck, like education and healthcare, where progress is just not happening fast enough, where there’s a stigma and people feel it’s not a viable place to invest capital — those are the fields we feel are ripe for disruptive innovation.
“We’re living in an age where a couple guys in a garage have the ability to solve huge problems that were, previously, the purview of large companies. A small team is capable of many rapid iterations and is much more willing to take risks to achieve a goal. True innovation requires taking extraordinary risks, which is not something that large companies are willing to do — they have too much to lose. It comes down to small entrepreneurs who are willing to take those kinds of risks in order to create real breakthroughs. That’s the idea of a prize: to attract maverick thinkers across disciplines, across nation states, to solve your problem.”
Diamandis is passionate about pursuing X PRIZE’s impossible dreams, in part by inspiring others with his own enthusiasm: “The thing that I’m really looking forward to is to taking the concept of incentive prizes to the next level, where they’re a mechanism for reinventing philanthropy and driving the best of humanity to achieve breakthroughs where we need them most.”