The next five years of the X Prize

At a gala event Saturday night, the X Prize Foundation rolls out a vision and a plan for the next half-decade. Will it change the world for the better?

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

At a gala charity event Saturday night featuring "Avatar" director James Cameron, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and a who's who of tech industry luminaries, the X Prize Foundation laid out its vision for the next five years.

Already in 2004, the foundation has paid out $10 million in prize money for the winner of the Ansari X Prize, which in 2004 went to the first non-governmental team to launch a vehicle into space twice in two weeks. The prize winners were Burt Rutan and the Paul Allen-backed team that built SpaceShipOne.

The foundation offers both X Prizes--$10 million or more for large-scale competitions focused on global problems that may take between three and eight years to solve--and X Challenges, awards on the order of $1 million for technology challenges and breakthroughs that have a time frame of one to two years.

Currently, the foundation is offering up millions of dollars in prize money for the first teams to sequence 100 genomes in 10 days (the $10 million Archon X Prize); to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, data and images back to Earth (the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize); and to produce green, production-ready cars capable of exceeding 100 miles per gallon or its energy equivalent (the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize).

In addition, it's planning on four other specific X Prizes: the AI Physician X Prize, which will be won by the first team to build an artificial intelligence system that can offer a medical diagnosis as good as or better than a diagnosis from a group of 10 board-certified doctors; the Autonomous Automobile X Prize, which will go to a team that designs a car capable of beating a top-seeded driver in a Gran Prix race; an unnamed X Prize for generating an organ from a terminal patient's own stem cells, transplanting the organ into the patient, and having that person live for a year; and another unnamed prize for building a deep-sea submersible that scientists could use to explore the ocean floor and gather complex data.

Now, having spent Friday and Saturday cloistered in meetings of its "vision circle," the X Prize Foundation is ready to define a general roadmap and strategy that will likely govern its operations in the coming years.

The planning
In March, X Prize Foundation Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis explained to CNET that the organization's four advisory groups would shortly be meeting to discuss areas of research and development that are "stuck." Those four groups focus on energy and the environment; education and global development; life sciences; and ocean and space exploration.

And in an interview this week, X Prize Foundation President Bob Weiss told CNET that as it prepares for the future, the organization needs to focus not just on being a place that offers prizes, but also on solidifying its position as an "innovation engine."

The question the foundation has to answer, Weiss explained, is what happens after an X Prize is won and after the winner has shifted the paradigm in the specific subject area. The foundation has decided to engage with a growing number of corporate partners and is trying to figure out how it can take its rightful place in the innovation ecosystem that it supports.

X Prize honchos
X Prize President Bob Weiss is at far left in this group shot from Wired's NextFest in September 2007. Standing with him, from left to right, are Google co-founder Larry Page, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, and Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Stefanie Olsen/CNET

One element of the five-year vision is to put more of the foundation's energy into working with its corporate partners to try to identify suitable prize areas within the problems facing those companies. So the idea, Weiss said, is to evaluate the partners' research and development efforts and see which of those efforts are posing technological or philosophical conundrums that may merit their own X Prizes or X Challenges, or possibly an internal competition.

As an example, Weiss pointed to a project the foundation did with NASA in which just such an internal examination produced 90 ideas that were eventually whittled down to nine and turned into the Centennial Challenges, the space agency's prize program for the "citizen innovator." One of the results of that was the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X Challenge, which tasked teams with putting a vehicle in the air to an altitude of more than 50 meters, flying it laterally for 100 meters and then landing on a pad.

Surveying the 'prize-scape'
One of the major elements of the five-year vision is to try to commit the foundation to roll out about two full X Prizes and as many as three or four X Challenges per year. "We can't do an unlimited number of these," Weiss said, "but we think we might have as many as eight competitions going on simultaneously when we come up to speed."

Identifying some of those potential competitions will be a big part of the visioneering workshops that the foundation held Friday and Saturday. During the two days, Weiss said prior to the meetings, the four working groups were expected to examine potential big issues needing solutions, and see if they could define specific X Prizes or Challenges that would solve them.

Going forward, once the ideas are on the table, the foundation's working groups will go through an "ideation phase," in which they will discuss the "broad prize-scape," essentially what could be accomplished in a particular prize sector. And then, the foundation will zero in on the particular prize to launch.

Then they will enter the design phase, in which they will drill down and craft the rules and guidelines for the prize. And finally, they will enter the business phase, in which they look at issues such as what it could cost a team to enter the competition. Often, teams invest a great deal more in their entries than they would stand to win.

The whole process of developing each new prize will last about four to six months, Weiss said, depending on the complexity.

But what is vitally important, he continued, is that the goals of each prize be reachable, albeit worthy of being an X Prize or X Challenge. "The landscape is littered with broken prizes," Weiss said. "It's a lot more than offering a purse. It's a combination of art and science....That's a key part of the design. What's the point of throwing a party if nobody shows up?"

Indeed, Weiss said, the foundation will likely have advance in-depth discussions with many of the teams that will eventually enter the competitions in a bid to attract realistic competitors and ensure that there is an actual likelihood of someone winning. "That absolutely informs what we do so we don't get into" the situation in which a prize is unwinnable.

New partners

Already, the X Prize Foundation has teamed up with Cisco Systems, which was named its official Energy and Environment Prize Group partner. Now, Weiss said, the foundation is looking for new partners and expects to name a corporate Life Sciences partner by this fall.

And as the organization moves into the next five-year phase, it is looking to stay as lean as possible, while adding new capabilities. The success of that, Weiss explained, will depend on leveraging the foundation's partners and other relationships. Ultimately, though, Weiss and others in the foundation have realized that what will make it strongest is not to house all of its competencies in-house, but rather to look for outside partners to work with in order to bolster its "intellectual capital across" the four working areas.

Saturday night, then, in front of a room packed with the leaders of Silicon Valley, folks like Segway inventor Dean Kamen, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, YouTube's Chad Hurley, and many others, including Cameron, Brin, Page, and Diamandis, the foundation will set out on its next five-year journey. If it succeeds, the world is likely to be a better place.