Want a new invention? Organise a competition and offer a prize

Article tiré du magazine The Economist.

Peter Homer space glove for NASA
Peter Homer demonstrating his astronaut’s glove

FROM the Longitude Prize offered by Britain’s parliament in 1714, as reward for a way for ships to determine their location when out of sight of land, to the Orteig Prize, offered in 1919 for a crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by aeroplane, the giving of prizes for technological endeavour has had an illustrious history. Such prizes fell out of favour after the second world war, but a renaissance began in 1996 when Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneurial engineer, announced a $10m purse, the XPRIZE, for the launch of a reusable manned spaceship. A torch had been lit.

On May 7th and 8th, the XPRIZE foundation, which exists to keep that flame alight, gathered hundreds of corporate bosses, philanthropists and ideas merchants in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, for its annual “Visioneering” workshop, to dream up new prizes. Though some believe the torch is flickering (there is enough dissatisfaction with the foundation’s management among its employees that Robert Weiss, its president, has promised that there will be action on the matter), the dreaming went on.

Prize fight

This year’s shortlist included prizes for creating artificial intelligence “capable of aggregating collective wisdom”, for devising a means of “sorting and processing 95% of landfill waste in an immediately profitable way”, and for inventing technology that will reduce by 70% the amount of water used per hectare in farming. The winner was the idea of helping refugees by creating pack-and-go housing that can provide efficient water, electricity and sanitation, and that will last for at least six months.

The first XPRIZE was won, eight years after it was proposed, by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a Californian company. Mojave then licensed its technology to Virgin Galactic, which hoped to create a suborbital flight industry. As the subsequent history of Virgin Galactic has shown, prize-winning technology does not always lead smoothly to commercial success. A fatal accident last year, involving one of the company’s prototype space planes, has set things back a long way. But other XPRIZE winners have been more successful. Elastec/American Marine, a firm in Illinois, won $1m in 2011 by recovering oil spilled at sea at a rate three times better than the industry’s previous best. It has since launched a product based on this technology. A fuel-efficiency prize of $5m was awarded in 2010 to Edison2, a Virginian company, for a safe, cheap and easily built car that could do more than 100 miles per American gallon (42.5km/litre). The firm’s trick was a novel system of suspension.

For the more audacious, a prize of $20m awaits whomever is able to get a rover to the moon’s surface and operate it successfully there. Two teams hoping to do this announced recently that their rovers will share a ride on a rocket launched next year by SpaceX, a private rocketry company. And $10m will go to the winner of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, which was inspired by the fictional, hand-held diagnostic device seen on “Star Trek”. To bag this award, someone must come up with a tool that can diagnose 16 medical conditions, among them anaemia, diabetes, strokes and urinary-tract infections, and be able to monitor five vital health signs, including blood pressure, respiratory rate and temperature. Cloud DX, one of the runners in the race, has already created a wearable device that captures these vital signs, and applies appropriate algorithms to them to spot potential problems.

Other prizes announced recently include one of $15m for open-source software that will teach children in poor countries how to read, write and do sums within a period of 18 months. And future prizes look likely for adult literacy, for sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for a plastic that will degrade harmlessly in the ocean.

The idea of all these prizes, according to Dr Diamandis, is to set goals that are “audacious but achievable”. Many of the foundation’s awards, such as the tricorder and child-literacy prizes, come from ideas proposed at Visioneering workshops. Ideas also come from potential sponsors and from members of the public. The foundation scrutinises suggestions to see if the award is feasible and will have the intended impact. For those that pass, but have no sponsor, one is then sought.

The XPRIZEs’ success has generated many imitators. The Methuselah Mouse Prize, created in 2003, offers cash to teams that breed longer-living rodents, and thus contribute to knowledge about how animals age. In 2004 a firm called Bigelow Aerospace put up a pot of $50m for the first American team to create a reusable manned capsule that would visit a space station. Though the prize expired, unclaimed, in 2010, such a capsule now exists. It was built by SpaceX; has flown, unmanned, six times; and will, if all goes well, fly with a crew next year.

Even Google, which is sponsoring the moon-rover XPRIZE, now offers its own awards. Every year it hosts Code Jam, a competition in which programmers, both professional and student, are challenged to solve algorithmic puzzles of interest to the company. Smaller prizes, too, have their place. A website called InnoCentive, for example, can be used by firms to harness the power of the crowd to solve tricky corporate problems. Cash awards are doled out to givers of the best answers.

Prizes also mobilise talent from unexpected areas. In 2007 NASA, America’s space agency, sponsored one for the best design of a new astronaut’s glove. The winner, Peter Homer, was unemployed at the time. Now, he runs a company that makes his invention.


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