Stars align for X Prize fund-raiser at Googleplex

Robin Williams, Richard Branson and Arianna Huffington are among the guests at event to raise money for innovation contests. Photos: Raising funds to boost breakthroughs

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--For Robin Williams, Tipper Gore, Richard Branson, and even Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, "X" marked the spot at Google this weekend.

That "X" would be the X Prize Foundation--the 10-year-old organization behind the $10 million Ansari X Prize spaceflight competition--which held its charity benefit at Google's headquarters here on Saturday.

The star-studded event was a sort of coming-out party to Bay Area investors, socialites and celebrities, in an effort to raise money for a dozen more innovation contests in the fields of energy, medicine and commercial spaceflight.

"We don't just hope for breakthroughs, we pay for performance," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize, during opening remarks before a four-course dinner and private concert with songwriter Rufus Wainwright. "You pay only when the breakthrough happens."

Diamandis was referring to the overall model of the X Prize, inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize that led Charles Lindbergh to fly solo across the Atlantic. The X Prize Foundation's first challenge, the Ansari X Prize, was established roughly eight years before Paul Allen's SpaceShipOne completed the personal-spaceflight mission and won the $10 million award in 2004.

Diamandis was also likely giving a nod to the pay-for-performance advertising business model that has turned Google, the evening's host, into a multibillion-dollar company. Google co-founder Larry Page is an X Prize Foundation board member.

Photos: Raising funds to boost breakthroughs

Since the success of the Ansari X Prize, the foundation has broadened its scope and vision for prize challenges. Last October, for example, it launched the $10 million Archon X Prize for Genomics, one of the largest such medical prizes. The challenge calls on private companies to create new technology that can map 100 human genomes in 10 days--a breakthrough that could lead to a new era in personalized preventative medicine.

In the coming months, the foundation will also launch an automotive challenge, calling on inventors to build an energy-efficient vehicle that can drive 100 miles on one gallon of gas.

"We hope to launch 10 to 15 prizes over the next 10 years in fields like energy, environment, medicine, and of course, space," said Diamandis, whose foundation employs about 30 people in Los Angeles and Washington.

For that reason, the X Prize was courting a long list of potential investors. Among the attendees Saturday were San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, California Attorney General Jerry Brown, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, CNET co-founder and former CEO Shelby Bonnie, political pundit Arianna Huffington and actor Robin Williams, who is a personal friend of Larry Page. Actor John Cusack was expected at the event, but he came down with a cold.

The evening's presentation was emceed by National Public Radio's Michael Krasny, and the night featured a lively private and public auction.

Among the notable items auctioned was a Virgin "mega-package" from Branson, the company's founder. The package included a getaway to the mogul's private island home on Necker Island in the Caribbean, and another trip to his South African resort, the Ulusaba Game Reserve. The package also came with a suborbital spaceflight on Virgin Galactic, which expects to launch its first flight in 2008. When the bidding for this item reached $300,000 between two different bidders, Branson stood up from his table and offered it to both patrons, raising $600,000 for the X Prize Foundation.

Another item, valued as "priceless" in the auction book, allowed the winning bidder to be one of the first people in history to have their genome mapped. "Join Michael J. Fox, Dr. Stephen Hawking and our very own Dr. Anousheh Ansari (first woman to be private space explorer) in becoming a genomic mapping pioneer as a member of the Genome 100," according to the auction book. The Genome 100 will be the first people to benefit from technology developed for the Archon X Prize for Genomics. The foundation expects that the prize will be awarded in the next three to five years.

The highest bidder paid $100,000 to win this item.

Zero Gravity, Diamandis' own company, also auctioned "eight minutes of weightlessness" with Ansari and up to 31 friends on a charter flight in G-Force One, a Boeing 727, which is also affectionately called the "vomit comet." Once the bidding got going, the auctioneer revealed that Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page would also be on the flight. Then, when the bids hit $160,000 among two audience members, Diamandis offered the trip to both bidders, raising $320,000 for the foundation.

Actor Williams even added his comedic talents to this particular auction: "(You'll think), it's amazing to have this moment of weightlessness, all for a s***load of cash."