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X Prize Foundation will crowdfund three new prizes. How it's a game-changer.

The X Prize Foundation announced this week that it will launch three new prize competitions before 2020. All of them, for the first time ever, will be crowdfunded, a possible game-changer in how the foundation's projects are selected.

By Contributor / October 24, 2013

Spectators watch SpaceShipOne during its X Prize winning flight over Mojave, California in 2004. X Prize announced this week a new venture to crowdfund three new projects, all slated to launched within the next seven years.

Robert Galbraith/Reuters


The X Prize Foundation announced this week that it will launch three new prize competitions before 2020.

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The announcement comes just one month after the foundation said it would launch the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X Prize for the development of a pH sensor to measure ocean acidification, and the three new projects will also be ocean-oriented.

But the exact goals of the new competitions, and the amount of cash that the winners will receive, is unknown – because it’s all up to the public.

“The grand challenges are problems of big importance for humanity,” says Paul Bunje, Senior Director of Oceans at X Prize, in an interview with the Monitor. “It’s critical for us that we are involving as much of a swath of humanity as possible.”

This is the first time that the X Prize Foundation, famed for its generous cash prizes to the winners of its competitions pursuing scientific breakthroughs, will crowdsource its prize purses and competition goals. Concurrent with the announcement of the new prizes, the foundation also launched the Ocean Ambassadors Program, though which participants can access educational content from the foundation and, in the future, contribute both dollars and ideas to X Prize.

The program will help the foundation to better outline which scientific problems are the most pressing and what form solutions to these problems should take, says Dr. Bunje.

“Innovation can come from anywhere,” says Bunje, “and the intelligence to design these prizes can also come from anywhere.”

The X Prize Foundation, founded in 1994, rocketed to fame in 2004 when it awarded its first prize, of $10 million, to Scaled Composites for the development of a commercial spaceship. The foundation has since expanded beyond aerospace development to bankroll the invention of more fuel-efficient cars, oil spill cleanup techniques, advanced lunar technologies, and now, ocean research.

All of X Prize's competitions, as well as similar contests from NASA, DARPA, and others, have operated on the same model: the prize organizer identifies which problem is worth addressing. It then outlines what a solution to that problem should look like: How high must it fly? How fast must it go? How big? How small?

After that, companies and individuals will spend millions – in total sometimes five to ten times what the competition awards to the winner, says Bunje – to answer the problem. At the end of it all is a cash prize for the winner, as well as probable contracts and other opportunities for all the entrants.

It’s the first part of the contest – identifying which problem to tackle and how competitors should tackle it – that has raised questions from analysts in recent years.

“One of the tricks of these prizes is getting the specifications for how to win the prize right,” says Molly Macauley, Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future.

What X Prize or other cash-flush organizers ask for can in effect shape the direction and goals of scientific inquiry, spurring vast research momentum toward a narrow goal, she says.


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