The business of XPrize: Scaling innovation contests

XPrize is currently on a pace to have two or three prizes a year and ultimately the goal is to have eight or nine concurrent prizes running at once. Here's a look at the pipeline and key issues.

XPrize, the organization behind the $10 million Qualcomm tricorder prize as well as Google's $30 million sponsorship of a Lunar landing effort, has an ambitious roadmap that spans wearables that measure happiness to bionics to organogenesis and transforming carbon to something useful.


You could say that Robert Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPrize, has a fun gig. A former Hollywood television and film producer, Weiss now gets to take all the stuff in science fiction and try to bring the technology forward a few centuries.

"We think about an idea born in science fiction and cross over into the world of reality," said Weiss.

Indeed, XPrize is currently on a pace to have two to three prizes a year and ultimately the goal is to have eight or nine concurrent prizes running at once. "We will never have dozens of prizes."

The most likely 2014 projects for XPrize revolve around creating a new generation of batteries with a jump in energy density and endurance; growing organs to help people that need transplants; cryogenics; bionics; and a process that would transform carbon into a long-term solution like a profitable product. Weiss just shakes his head at the idea that humanity can bury excess carbon as a long-term solution. "We have to find a way to transform carbon into something useful. If successful it turns the whole equation on its ear," said Weiss.

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But those ideas can all change depending on partners and funding. XPrize has a catalog of ideas and competitions.

We caught up with Weiss at the CBS Interactive offices in New York for a chat. Here's the recap.

Is this Qualcomm tricorder thing for real? Well $10 million says that XPrize is serious. The idea for the tricorder, a device from Star Trek that can scan patients and cure them, was something former Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs Jr. was into. Weiss noted that the prize---awarded in the fall of 2015---revolves around scanning a patient, knowing the health state and using an artificial intelligence system that can "move 23rd century technology to the 21st." That tall order sounds a bit wacky, but 30 teams are already competing for it. The prize date so far is uncertain. The return on a health tricorder is obvious. In the developing world, few have access to health care. In the developed world, too many people use the emergency room as a primary care physician, explained Weiss.

XPrize is looking for mavericks. XPrize has three other contests running beyond the tricorder effort—an oil clean up prize, a health sensor prize as well as Google's Lunar landing effort. The common threads are the ability to commercialize a product for a greater good—profits make a innovation sustainable—and the knack for attracting mavericks, said Weiss. "We want to attract large numbers of people to solve a problem. The XPrize attracts mavericks who take unusual approaches to problems," he added. Collaboration also becomes important as teams compete. One contest featured a tag team of a metal recycler and a tattoo artist.

The returns on a lunar landing. Google's Lunar XPrize is an effort that will get the press as well as capture the imagination of bystanders. Roughly speaking, the Lunar XPrize is designed to put a spacecraft on the moon via robots. "We want to extend the commercial sphere and markets to the moon," said Weiss. But the real win is that a Lunar XPrize can attract students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) just like the first space race did. "We'll tell the impact based on baseline interest in STEM and then follow up," said Weiss. The competition will time out at the end of 2015.

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XPrize's sweet spot. The sweet spot for the XPrize fits somewhere in between audacity and attainability, said Weiss. The idea for the XPrize is to have well-designed contests that can use the competitive spirit to innovate to actually hit a goal.

Where do ideas come from? XPrize has global visioneering sessions where there's a dialogue about ideas. Ideas are boiled down to a top 10 list and then potential sponsors enter the conversation. One core requirement is that an XPrize idea has to make history when an answer is found.

Ethical dilemmas. I couldn't help but notice that XPrize's book of ideas for 2014 included self-replicating systems—think nano insects and robots—and noted the unintended consequences. "We're very aware of opening Pandora's box and unintended consequences," said Weiss. "We think about the impact of the prize as well as the range of impact. For self-replicating machines we don't want them out of control. For some prizes this is more of an issue than others, but we don't proceed until there are safeguards in place," said Weiss. Overall, self-replicating systems are needed for long-term space travel, noted Weiss.

Mushy metrics. One potential competition would revolve around developing technology that could measure happiness. I asked Weiss if that topic was too mushy to gauge. Weiss said there are usually technology solutions to major issues and happiness is one of them. What's unclear is how such technology would rate happiness, which varies by person. A happiness challenge felt like more of a long shot to me—as if a hovering transport system didn't—but I noted that XPrize may want to catch up with Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania researcher who has studied what makes people happy and championed the so-called positive psychology movement.

Scaling XPrize. Weiss likened XPrize to HBO, but to truly scale, the organization may need something more akin to an innovation YouTube. To hit that market, XPrize plans to launch an online platform HeroX that will allow "heroes to self organize." Weiss said innovators are heroes and there should be a place to identify what's able to win a prize, raise money, and expand the innovation landscape.


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