In 1927, Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize for being the first to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. The $25,000 prize (over $350K in today’s money) put up by New York hotel owner, Raymond Orteig, mirrored numerous aviation incentive prizes offered in the early 20th century that helped catalyze the commercial aviation industry. In fact, the prize occasioned considerable investment in aviation, sometimes many times the value of the prize itself, by advancing public interest and the level of aviation technology.
In 1996, after reading The Spirit of St. Louis, which details Lindbergh’s historic victory and quest to win the Orteig Prize, Dr. Peter H. Diamandis was moved to replicate the model as an incentive for people to take on modern day challenges.
In the same year the Diamandis formally announced the Ansari XPRIZE in St. Louis, and the race was on. The premise being that you get what you incentivize, and that without a target, you will miss out every time. Rather than throw money at a problem, XPRIZE aimed to incentivize the solution and challenge the world to solve it.
XPRIZE can best be described as an innovation engine - a facilitator of exponential change. The website clams that “tapping into that indomitable spirit of competition brings about breakthroughs and solutions that once seemed unimaginable, even impossible” - just like it did in those early years of aviation.
Strangely enough XPRIZE also believes that challenges must be audacious but achievable and tied to objective, measurable goals - and be understandable by all. Solutions can come from anyone, anywhere. It works on the premise that some of the greatest minds of our time remain untapped, ready to be engaged by a world that is in desperate need of help. Solutions, change and radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity are the aim.
That all sounds very wonderful but is it a sign of our times that great ideas, new products, services and solutions have to be ‘incentivized’ out of people?
What is happening to the self-made entrepreneurial spirt that has driven many of the greatest technological and humanitarian advances over the last hundred years or so?
Perhaps it should not be surprising that young innovators today prefer to start small and avoid the need to call on vulture, sorry, venture capital to grow. Today good ideas can get funding from the guy next door who happens to like an idea that is floated on crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter.
XPRIZE is different in that it has criteria that push the boundaries of human potential by focusing on problems currently believed to be unsolvable, or that have no clear path toward a solution.
For talented people in developing economies even support from crowd-funding can be beyond reach. With more than 1.2 billion people, India is the world’s second most populous country and widely considered to be a leading innovation ‘hot spot’.
India’s rapidly expanding technology and industrial sectors coupled with its entrepreneurial spirit and drive hold great promise for the future.
XPRIZE believes there is tremendous opportunity to use the incentivized competition model to focus India’s innovators on creating technological breakthroughs that address India’s Grand Challenges in the following areas: Energy; Learning; Food & Nutrition; Shelter; Water; Social Justice; Waste; Global Connectivity.
Some of the XPRIZES on offer are quite awesome. How about the IBM Watson AI XPRIZE – a $5 million competition challenging teams from around the world to develop and demonstrate how humans can collaborate with powerful cognitive technologies to tackle some of the world’s grand challenges.
Or the Carbon XPRIZE – a $20 Million global competition to develop breakthrough technologies that will convert CO₂ emissions from power plants and industrial facilities into valuable products like building materials, alternative fuels and other items that we use every day. Teams will be scored on how much CO₂ they convert and the net value of their products.
Perhaps the same model can be used internally by companies where creativity and innovation is lagging. There could well be a Charles Lindbergh hiding in the wings!