JUSTICS

WHO'S SUING WHOM

March 17 2008
JUSTICS

WHO'S SUING WHOM

March 17 2008

EYES ON THE PRIZE

TECHNOLOGY

The X Prize aims to do for green cars what it did for space flight

SUZANNE TAYLOR

When it comes to green technology, the automotive industry isn’t exactly pushing back the frontiers of science. And who can blame it? Coming up with new ways of saving the planet is expensive work that, frankly, doesn’t offer a lot of payoff in a society content with the current lineup of gas guzzlers.

But it’s that very stagnation that gets Tom Vander Ark, president of the X Prize Foundation, excited. He knows all it takes to solve a pressing challenge is to get the word out, attract new minds to a problem—and offer a seriously hefty purse to the first one who comes up with a solution. After all, it’s how the foundation virtually created the commercial space-flight industry with its $ 10-million Ansari X Prize, won in 2004 by the first private team to make two successful space flights. Four years later, almost $1.5 billion has been spent on commercial space flight and half a dozen companies plan to offer private flights in the next few years—including one whose ship is based on the winning design.

Now the foundation hopes its Automotive X Prize, to be launched this month, will give a similar boost to green technology. The minimum $ 10-million reward will go to the first team to build an economically viable car capable of driving from Ottawa to Winnipeg on a single tank of gas. “The most important outcome of the prize will be to convince people around the world that there are superefficient cars that they would buy,” says Vander Ark. “So it will develop market demand as well as produce innovation.”

The foundation, which also has a prize for sequencing human genomes quickly and affordably, and for landing and operating a robotic craft on the moon, didn’t invent innovation prizes. As far back as 1714 the British government offered a prize for a way of determining a ship’s longitude, which revolutionized maritime navigation and trade. A 1795 prize for a way to preserve Napoleon’s army’s food gave birth to the canning industry. And the 1919 Orteig Prize (won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927) kick-started the commercial aviation industry—and inspired the creators of the inaugural X Prize.

With all of the buzz around crowd-sourcing and open-access models these days, it’s no wonder innovation prizes have come back

into fashion. “[Traditionally] a company would get their ideas from their research and development staff. Now, you can multiply that staff by a thousand or one million,” says Maria Blair, team leader of innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation. It’s that extended reach that led the Rockefeller Foundation to partner with InnoCentive, a company that connects “seeker” organizations that have a problem with “solvers” from around the world via the Internet.

“We’re seeing more and more companies wanting to use this as a way to tap into the crowd,” says Tom Venable, a vice-president at InnoCentive. Focused

NOW YOU CAN HAVE A RESEARCH STAFF OF MILLIONS

largely on specialized chemistry and pharmacology (“a method is needed to prevent the degradation of fluorocarbon elastomers upon exposure to nitrogen-containing species” is one of the 620 challenges currently

posted), the challenges may not inspire the excitement that comes with rocketing into space, but they’ve attracted hundreds of companies that have paid nearly $3 million in rewards for the 215 problems solved so far. Surprisingly, between 70 and 75 per cent of solutions come from people whose expertise isn’t in the field. “That’s the power of this business model,” Venable says. “If you put a question to 100,000 people, there’s a pretty

good chance the answer already exists. You’ve just got to ask enough people.”

Sometimes the problem isn’t a lack of knowhow within an industry’s own walls, but a lack of financial incentive to pursue certain lines of research. Groups are now starting to look at a model similar to an innovation prize, called an active market commitment (AMC), to encourage research into drugs for the developing world by creating a guaranteed market for a specified medicine or vaccine. The world’s first AMC—US$1.5 billion for a vaccine for pneumococcal disease—was announced last February, giving developers assurance that a discovery will be rewarded.

Whether it’s creating the world’s first truly green car, returning to the moon or developing vaccines, prizes and other open-innovation models are creating excitement in sectors that, if given the right boost, could benefit billions of people around the globe. “I think there’s some incredible momentum here,” says Blair. “As the world becomes better connected, and as we better understand how to tap into people’s ideas, [these models] are just going to multiply.” M