Saturday, June 11, 2011

Spurring Massive Technology Change with the Ansari X Prize

I can't believe it's taken me two years to finally start posting about the Ansari X Prize and its contributions to citizen science.  Not because they haven't made fantastic contributions to the field or haven't been incredibly successful in pushing technology innovation (which they've done in spades).  Nor because the big prizes often require large investments beyond the reach of individuals at home (many are smaller or require the input of individual citizen scientists).  These are important projects that amateur scientists are involved in and enjoy watching.  So it's time to remedy the situation and start following them now.

The Ansari X Prize was modeled on past technology challenges like the early 20th Century Orteig Prize that spawned Charles Lindbergh's famed Atlantic Crossing and spurred a fledgling aviation industry to rapid innovation.  Today the X Prize Foundation sponsors large incentive prizes ($10 million for the flagship Ansari X Prizes and smaller X Challenges) to encourage private investment and overcome key technology obstacles that will spur entire new industries. 

The foundation has already been successful with the first X Prize for private human spaceflight when Spaceship One launched a man into space twice within three days, and helped create the booming private spaceflight and space tourism industries.  They also succeeded with the Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize that awarded $10 million to the best cars with 100 mile per gallon fuel economy and helped spur innovation in important energy efficiency technologies.  And now they have their sights set on three more innovative challenges:

Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge:
This is a one-year competition to develop breakthrough oil-spill cleanup technology that can  respond to future environmental disasters such as last year's BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Scheduled to end in Fall 2011, teams will compete for $1.4 million in prizes by cleaning up a simulated spill at the OHMSETT National Oil Spill Response Research and Renewable Energy Test Facility in New Jersey.

Google Lunar X Prize:
This is an ongoing competition for $30 million to the first privately-funded team that sends a robot lander to the moon, travels 500 foot along it's surface, and transmits video and still images back to earth.  NASA is also assisting this project by purchasing up to $10 million in design information and data from competing teams that will be useful to the government agencies own spaceflight initiatives.  Due to the significant size and scope of this project, 29 teams were registered for the current phase of the project and are quickly moving toward their planned moon launches.

Archon Genomics X Prize:
This ongoing competition looks to rapidly decrease the cost of sequencing entire human genomes; helping to uncover new medical discoveries and usher in an age of personalized disease treatments based on an individual's own genetic makeup.  To do this teams must be able to sequence the entire genome of 100 individuals in 10 days, at a cost of less than $10,000 per genome.  The $10 million dollar prize will provide at $7 million to the winner if three teams are successful, $7.5 million if two teams are successful, and the full amount if there is only one winner.

There are also a number of other competitions on the horizon that you may be interested in and that we will also be following.  The first is the Qualcomm Tri-Corder X Prize providing $10 million for a mobile device that can diagnose human illness better than a panel of board-certified physicians.  Although the goal has been set the competition rules are still being sorted out, and the project not yet begun (expected early 2012) .  The Foundation also continues to develop new ideas and has recently completed a Vision summit to brainstorm additional X Prizes.  The final candidates are listed on the Prize Development website and are available for voting by us, the public.

These are exciting times we live in and the X Prize Foundation is helping to keep it that way.  So stick around as we follow these competitions and the private individuals competing in them.  We wish them all the best of luck.


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