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Prize Power: How Competition Inspires Tech Innovation

By JR Raphael LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Aug 6, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Bob Weiss knows a thing or two about dreams.

Prize Power: How Competition Inspires Tech Innovation

"I grew up with the promise that if one wanted to go to space, they would get the chance," said Weiss, president of the X Prize Foundation. The trouble was that nobody kept the promise.

"It became obvious that the only people that were going to space were government-trained employees called 'astronauts.' Other folks were not getting to go," Weiss said.

Four years ago, the childhood vision started popping up again for Weiss. He knew there had to be a way to make it real. Finally, he found it.

Building on the Past

Today, Weiss and the foundation are pioneering a competition-driven style of innovation, helping turn little-known inventors into global phenomena. But the key to his own dream actually started with someone else's, years before he was born.

In 1919, a hotel owner offered a US$25,000 prize for the first person to fly nonstop between Paris and New York City. Seven years later, a young mail pilot named Charles Lindbergh pulled it off -- transforming air travel forever.

"The least likely guy was the one who won it -- this part-time barnstorming airmail pilot," Weiss pointed out. "It stimulated a whole paradigm change."

Fast forward to 2004. A book about Lindbergh's experience found its way to Weiss and his colleagues. The tale gave them the inspiration for the first X Prize and the foundation that would follow.

"'X' was for the unknown, for experimental, for 10 -- $10 million," Weiss explained. "The prize would be analogous to the prize that stimulated the aviation industry. This prize, though, would stimulate the personal space industry," he told TechNewsWorld.

And stimulate it did. The Ansari X Prize led to the development of SpaceShipOne and its second generation, SpaceShipTwo, now nearing completion as potentially the world's first venue for public space tourism.

Weiss's dream is closer than ever to becoming reality. He's not the only one reaching for the stars, though. The idea of open competitions for innovation is rapidly gaining momentum, giving a whole new generation a shot at changing the world.

A Beautiful Mind

John Davis is part of that generation. He's an accomplished chemist, but you wouldn't know it to talk to him. Davis doesn't talk much.

He doesn't have to. At 38, Davis has more than proven himself as one of America's brightest minds. He's credited with figuring out a mystery that boggled scientists for nearly two decades.

The puzzle dates back to 1989, when the tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef and dumped nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. It's still considered one of the worst human-caused environmental disasters of all time. Tens of thousands of animals died.

Teams are still struggling to clean up remnants of the spill. The problem? The oil is frozen in the water, so the standard solution of pumping it out just won't work. After years of experimentation, the group charged with finding a solution -- the Oil Spill Recovery Institute, or OSRI -- turned to a company called Innocentive to help.

Innocentive, much like the X Prize Foundation, takes large-scale problems and seeks out people who can solve them. It found John Davis. Or, more specifically, it found his friends -- who then brought the opportunity to his attention.

"I read through it and I was kinda like, hmm," Davis said with a chuckle. "I gave it a little bit of thought, was like -- gosh, you know, if it were me, I'd probably just try concrete vibrators."

Davis had worked with concrete and had seen how those vibrators can help keep it fluid while fresh. He suddenly saw the connection, but he wasn't sure he'd found the $20,000 answer.

"I was kinda like, 'Well, gosh, this is almost too obvious.' I struggled with that a little bit, but I went ahead and submitted the solution -- and won," he told TechNewsWorld.

"I was pretty dumbfounded at that point. Who'd have thought?" he laughed.

OSRI is getting ready to put Davis's solution to work. And Davis is getting ready to put himself to work, too. He has promised to devote a portion of his winnings not only to financing oil cleanup research, but also to buying himself a ticket to Alaska to help implement his innovation.

Behind the Brainpower

Davis represents further evidence that sometimes the answer comes from the most unlikely of places. That notion is what propels the idea of competition-based innovation: Anyone, regardless of age, experience or stature, has an equal chance to chime in.

"It could be your inventor next door or your Ph.D. scientist from Harvard," Innocentive President and Chief Executive Dwayne Spradlin told TechNewsWorld. "They come from all walks of life."

About a third of Spradlin's "solvers," as he calls them, have Ph.D.s. All of them -- the winning ones, anyway -- could certainly afford to get one by the time they're done. The process, though, is about far more than the fat financial result, Spradlin suspects. Rather, it's about the search for something meaningful.

"These people ... love the hunt. They sometimes can connect dots that many people can't," Spradlin said. "They care about a lot more than just the money. They want to be part of a community, and they want to do stuff that matters."

Spradlin's operation has helped find solutions for everything from the Alaskan oil spill to far less dramatic corporate marketing strategies. Companies as large as Proctor & Gamble and Dow are among its clients. But any organization -- no matter how big or small -- stands to benefit from opening itself up to ideas, Spradlin says.

"We find now organizations are really just beginning to see the power of inviting the outside world into really helping them with their innovation -- whether it's inviting in customers or partners or 7 billion people," he said.

"It doesn't replace inside innovation. What it does is it provides a very powerful outside mechanism for driving innovation into the organization," he said.

Unlocking the Dreams

Having started the countdown for the space tourism industry, Weiss is now working on another far-out goal: sending a robot to the moon for a better understanding of what's really there. The X Prize Foundation's Google Lunar X Prize is offering $30 million for the first person who can figure out how to do it.

Ultimately, though, Weiss's story is already a success. He may be humble, but he knows he's helped create something significant.

"We all hoped that within some years of the [Ansari] X Prize being won, an industry would start for personal spaceflight. I think none of us dreamt that that industry would actually start during the competition," Weiss said.

"When I stood there out at the tarmac on Mojave and looked at the tail of SpaceShipOne, and there was the logo for Virgin Galactic -- a business that had been launched to take paying customers into space -- it was incredible that this would happen concurrently with the prize, and not in the distant future," he said.

Bob Weiss knows a thing or two about dreams. His own vision may be nearly realized, but Weiss knows plenty of others not yet born. That's where he and his fellow enablers hope to make their biggest mark on the path of prize-based innovation -- by giving others the power to think big and make the unthinkable come true.

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