Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy New Year!

Sorry for the silence...we've been off on holiday. We'll definitely catch you up in the New Year.

Happy Holidays from all of us at the X PRIZE Foundation. Thank you for sticking with us through the year. And we look forward to seeing you in 2009.

The X PRIZE Foundation Staff at our HQ in Playa Vista, CA.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Re-establishing NASA's Leadership

Chairman/CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, Peter Diamandis, recently wrote about how NASA should reposition itself, now that a new administration is coming on board. He writes:
As President-Elect Obama takes office, NASA stands positioned to benefit from the change and enthusiasm brought by his new Administration. Five years out from the announcement of a new vision for America's Space Exploration program, important lessons about what NASA should be doing and how it can best meet those goals are available, and must be learned. So long a source of national pride and inspiration as well as cutting edge research, NASA is now losing its position of world leadership. Thankfully, the ingenuity and the talent necessary to reassert America's pre-eminence are still hardwired into the fabric of this nation. NASA and its peer agencies can be in a position to efficiently tap into it and direct it.
He further lists his recommendations for what NASA should do here.

[Read more].

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Amazing Grace: the story of the anti-slavery movement

If you are American, British, Scottish or were influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States, you are probably familiar with the song Amazing Grace. Most people in the United States equate it with an old negro spiritual or gospel song that became the anthem of the civil rights movement in the 1960's. What few know is that it originated in England, was written by John Newton, a converted slave-trader turned minister, and was the anthem of the anti-slavery movement in Great Britain before it was adopted by the Americans.

While it was the British who started the slave-trade from Africa, they were also the first to see the inhumanity of what they were doing and stop it. The tireless leaders of this movement were a pair of friends - William Wilberforce and William Pitt (who was the youngest Prime Minister of England at one point). Pitt unfortunately never got to see the fruits of his labor; he died before the anti-slavery legislation passed.

I recently saw a brilliant film outlining this amazing story, aptly titled Amazing Grace. View the trailer here and below. HIGHLY recommend watching it:

Monday, December 15, 2008

Blog Spotlight + Video of the week

Yatin Sethi has a great blog on social innovation largely focused on India. Its an aggregate site, in the sense that unlike the other blogs I've highlighted so far, Yatin's blog gleans content rather than sharing his own views on things. Its really good stuff, particularly if you are trying to figure out what the upcoming ethos of social innovation is in India.

One of my favorite posts from his recent stuff is this video (borrowed from YouTube). Someone surveyed various segments of the Indian population and asked them what they would do with Rs 500 (US$10). You'll get a good idea of the value gap (the gap in what a specific thing, in this case a set amount of money is valued) between different social sectors in India. To the poor this is a HUGE amount; to the middle and upper classes, its absolutely nothing. The video is great, though I wish it was translated. I will do my best below to make up for this. Keep in mind that:
  • middle and upper classes in India usually speak English (though they are multilingual)
  • the poor classes usually speak only in local languages
  • most of the little boys interviewed here are already working for a living, so they understand the value of Rs 500.

Again, the question is:

Q. What would you do with Rs 500??

Answers (italics are the translated versions)...I must say I am embarrassed for the middle class Indians...doing a good job with their youth, eh?? Lofty goals...
  • get a piercing done
  • "freak out" ("freak out" is slang for "enjoy myself) at all the eating joints.
  • buy school supplies**
  • buy home supplies**
  • movies, movies, movies (in India, a movie theater ticket ranges from Rs 150-800)
  • I'll buy things for my kids and then save the rest for a rainy day
  • What the heck can you do with Rs500?? Can't get or sell anything
  • Buy things for the house; I'll go to the market and buy tomatoes and potatoes
  • Hide it somewhere for another day
  • Go meet my friend
  • Eat lots of ice cream and have a party
  • Give my family and mom and dad out a really nice meal.
  • Get a nice present for my friends in Italy
  • Get a first-class railway pass
  • Buy drinks
  • Alcohol
  • what I don't have and need, I'll go and buy
  • Buy movie tickets
  • Top up my mobile phone
  • I'll buy a [cricket] bat and [some type of cheap] gold bracelet
  • I'll eat a nice meal in a fancy restaurant
  • Go and have a big biryani (rice dish from the Deccan area)
  • Wild Strawberries
  • Buy stuff for my kids
  • Blow it up on booze or smokes
  • Have a party or something with it
  • Pay for my school tuition fees
  • Get some medicine
  • Buy some clothes or something
  • Buy a branded underwear
  • Get a much better, and more stylish haircut
  • Actually nowadays with Rs 500, you don't get anything...

Friday, December 12, 2008

How I would revive the Big 3 Automakers

How the Big 3 can save themselves...

As you know, the Senate denied the bailout for the Big 3 automakers yesterday. There were mixed reactions (see the comments). I drive an American car, while my family drives primarily Japanese cars, and many friends drive German, Australian, and Swedish cars (well, I guess Indian too, now that Tata has bought up Jaguar and Land Rover). Its clear which ones are seriously lagging in quality in the American market.

A couple of us were sitting around talking about it yesterday...what now? proposes an interesting solution: rather than put a $14 Billion dollar bailout, put a little bit of that money (about $1 Billion) into an X PRIZE type of competition.

Well, as you know...we already have one...the Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE...and none of the Big 3 have entered yet, even though they could have a lot to gain out of it. I think they should. What have they got to lose right now??

Actually, if I were them, and faced firing hundreds of my employees, I'd open up the X PRIZE competition to my employees instead, and possibly add a couple of bonuses on top. Thinking $1-$5 M bonus on top to anyone who came up with a truly innovative idea the quickest (essentially incentivizing them to beat out the competition). This is what I would tell them:
  1. Form your teams
  2. Enter the competition.
  3. Show me your project plan.
  4. Once approved, the company will pay half your entrance fees, $2000 per month flat for each team, plus upto ten team members per team get to keep their benefits (health insurance, etc) for the next year (to prove progress)
  5. Deadline to the enter the competition is Feb 28, get cracking.
  6. Once entered and officially approved, you can use company facilities for office space; and company labs on a case-by-case basis.
I mean, seriously...its incentivizing grassroots innovation for such a low cost. Why NOT?? isn't it time for innovation?? Plus, create a sense of purpose and hope for the good employees of your companies. Use them in a way that is good for them, the companies, and the country!!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Being sick and poor in rural India

Abhijit Banerjee, Professor of Economics at MIT and Director of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), has put online an excellent documentary that he made while studying health issues in rural India. The documentary, The Name of the Disease, gives a very raw and honest look at what it is like to be poor and sick in rural India.
The documentary "The Name of the Disease" explores the voices of patients, shamans, doctors, and varied health officials in some of the poorest parts of rural Rajasthan, India, to attempt an understanding of the complex and multi-layered narratives of the poor and the sick. The film looks at some of the often conflicting perspectives, and it addresses the questions of daily tragedy and fatalism, tradition and modernity and complacency and rage, as it traces stories that people tell about their lives [...]
This is on YouTube and comes in six parts. I'm putting part 1 below, but you can link to the rest:

(part 1) (part 2), (part 3) (part 4) (part 5) (part 6)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Panel Discussion on Technology as an enabler of socio-economic development in India/Africa

In this EXCELLENT discussion, pioneers Mo Ibrahim, Sanjiv Ahuja, and Sunil Mittal reflect on how technology and governance is enabling development

A GREAT discussion about technology as an enabler of socio-economic development in India and Sub Saharan Africa. This does focus heavily on the mobile industry...but they do have an understanding of the issues. The panelists include Sunil Mittal, Sanjiv Ahuja, and Mo Ibrahim. Its wonderful and refreshing to hear Indians and Africans who are educated and successful, educated about the issues, and care to rebuild their countries. (You have no idea how rare this is...which is part of the problem!)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Learning to Love Africa

From Google's youtube channel, a beautiful and enlightening story by Monique Maddy, a native African, returning back to the continent of her birth to rebuild.

I fully subscribe to Monique's views. This is why I work at the X PRIZE Foundation. I believe that the right X PRIZE in Global Development will radically change the way aid is done moving forward, as well as (most importantly) create the paradigm that a developing country can fix itself using indigenous resources, without having to rely on traditional aid systems. Think of $2.3 Trillion being invested more wisely.
Upon graduating from Harvard Business School, Monique Maddy, born in Liberia and educated in Britain and the U.S., relocates to Tanzania to execute a start-up business providing telephone service. With the excitement attendant to starting a new company and the soul-searching of a young woman on a mission, Maddy brings personal experience and a different perspective on the troubled history of conquest and colonization of Africa, including the resettlement of American slaves in Liberia. Having worked for the UN, Maddy also brings a perspective on capitalism versus the benevolent efforts of world organizations.

Meet a Board Member: Dean Kamen (a.k.a Lord Dumpling)

The next Board member that I'd like to feature on the neXtPRIZE Blog is Dean Kamen. I've had the pleasure of meeting Dean Kamen once, when he came in to talk about some of his inventions, and how he's trying to change the world.

Dean is a prolific inventor, and an advocate for science and technology. He's the founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation. He holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents for innovative devices that have expanded the frontiers of health care worldwide. Some of his notable inventions include the first wearable insulin pump for diabetics, the HomeChoice™ portable peritoneal dialysis machine, the INDEPENDENCE® IBOT® Mobility System, and the Segway® Human Transporter.

Many people have asked me "Why the Segway? How is that beneficial, other than to having fun?" Well, What many people don't know is that the technology that keeps the Segway upright was developed to create a wheelchair that can do the same thing, allowing handicapped people to rise up and have eye contact with people.

Here's a picture of what I'd talking about, because I don't think I did a great job explaining.

Dean Kamen showing his iBot wheelchair to President Bill Clinton

Dean also owns North Dumpling Island in the Long Island Sound, which he refers to as the "Kingodom of North Dumpling." Now, I don't know how accurate this is, but according to Wikipedia: "Kamen was initially denied permission to build a wind turbine on the island, so he joked that he was seceding from the United States, and later signed a non-aggression pact with his friend, then-President George H. W. Bush."

Obviously the secession, if it actually happened, is not legally recognized.

Does anyone know for sure? I understand that Dean has created a constitution, a flag, and a national anthem. He's also got a Navy (a single amphibious vehicle).

All in all, Dean is a fascinating man who has done a number of great things for the world, and will continue to do so, I'm sure.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Links I liked

1. I am traveling again, this time between the U.S and India. Naturally, this caught my eye! Commercial Air Travel as seen from around the world. This is super cool.

2. Again for the same reasons perhaps, How to Nap. Who knew that it was an art??

3. Bangladesh Scientists produce petroleum from organic wastes. Petrol from poop...means we'll be a lot more careful about where we put our waste!

4. Would you pay to drink purified water from a fuel cell plant?? This story comes from India.

5. A solar powered refrigerator that can bring health and energy savings to rural India.

6. On a completely unrelated note, how to make chocolate from bean to bar, from scratch!

Its been a while since Wordle...

...Yeah I here you go. Thoughts??

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The World Food Prize

(photo source: USA Today)

You may not know this, but about a month ago, former senators Bob Dole and George McGovern got the World Food Prize, also known as the Nobel Prize for Hunger.

Here's the full story:
Two former U.S. senators will be honored this week for their work in creating an international fund to help feed children around the world, the World Food Prize Foundation said.

Bob Dole and George McGovern — both former U.S. presidential candidates — established their George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program in 2000.

The school-feeding program, funded primarily through the U.S. Congress, has provided more than 22 million meals to children in 41 countries, the foundation said.

The program is credited with boosting school attendance by 14% overall, and 17% for girls, who are often kept at home to work, but are more likely to be allowed to attend schools that provide a meal, according to a news release announcing the award.

Dole and McGovern will be awarded the World Food Prize on Thursday, a distinction that some observers have called the Nobel Prize for hunger. The 1994 World Food Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus went to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his "efforts to create economic and social development from below."

The World Food Prize includes a $250,000 cash award, to be split between Dole and McGovern.

[read more here]

Christiane Amanpour covers Genocide and related Policy issues on CNN tonight

At 9pm ET/PT tonight, CNN's Christiane Amanpour will host "Scream Bloody Murder" on CNN, covering genocide and the policy issues that surround it.

I wanted to call everyone's attention to an excellent report called Scream Bloody Murder that CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour is doing tonight (December 4) on CNN at 9pm ET and PT (this is American time, but I'm sure this will be broadcast around the world depending on where you are). It is a two-hour special report on genocide and why countries are so slow to respond.

I was listening to a preview of it on NPR this morning on my way in, and it sounded brutally honest (for once) and very educational. Christiane has been covering this issue, one close to her heart, for over 25 years...its sizing up to be a very powerful episode. There are many warnings out that the pictures and testimony will be gut be forewarned!

Unfortunately, I don't have cable TV (well, I don't really have a TV), so I'll be heading to someone else's house (anyone with cable TV need a new friend??)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Scotland announces details of its $15 million Saltire Prize!

Awhile back, the Scottish government announced it's then $20 million Saltire Prize to harness the power of the oceans. Details were a bit fuzzy (there really weren't many more).

Today they have come up with some more specifics for what people have to do: "The award will go to the team that "successfully demonstrates—in Scottish waters—the best commercially viable wave or tidal technology capable of providing electricity to thousands of homes," according to Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond.

You can have a read about the prize on National Geographic's website:

It looks like prize incentives are becoming a serious part of the future of innovation. Which is just where we at the X PRIZE Foundation want them to be.

Anyone think they have an idea that can let them compete?

Links I liked and a question to the void

1. On one hand, the Indian tourism industry worries that mumbai attacks might turn away tourists just as they were entering peak tourist season for 2008-09. On the other hand, the Taj Mahal Hotel, site of the recent attacks becomes a hotbed of "disaster tourism"

2. A young muslim woman reflects on the real meaning of her religion and why it needs to be reclaimed.

3. How free is free speech, particularly when we use private search and post engines like google and YouTube?

4. A general question to the void: At the X PRIZE Foundation, we rely heavily on the telegenic nature of our prize concepts and how they can engage people. So I'm always wondering How does the media decide what stories to pick up??

During the Mumbai attacks, I was wondering about this for the following reason: the Mumbai attacks in no way contributed to India's most substantial death toll. (The 1947 Partition takes the cake, but that might be taking it too far back). More recently, more people died in the Mumbai train blasts from two years ago than in the recent Taj/Oberoi attacks. Yet one got all the attention. Why?? Was this an issue of race or wealth?? While the Mumbai attacks happened, atleast 300 people were killed in a Christian-Muslim clash in Nigeria. This got almost no attention...why is that?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

An X PRIZE for employing youth

Problem-makers from around the world, like with the terrorists in the Mumbai shootings, are usually young, energetic males (in their teens and twenties), poor, barely educated, with plenty of time on their hands to make trouble for everyone!

This whole India bombings thing has really got me thinking.

As I said in my last post from Nov 26th, our team was in India to meet with an interdisciplinary group of experts from across the country. Our goal was to glean ideas for X PRIZEs that would radically change poverty issues in India. The event took place on Nov 19th in the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, and was energizing and fascinating in many ways. Emeka and I are working on preparing the report now. Maybe we can share some of this information with you once we are finished.

But thinking deeply about poverty issues in India and the recent terrorism attacks in Mumbai started something in my head. The terrorists in this case (and often in most cases, as also with soldiers, rebels, or other problem makers) are often teenage/young 20-something males with a lot of time on their hands. The phrase "an idol mind is a devil's workshop" has obviously never reached them! Many of the countries with problem-makers have relatively chauvenistic cultures where the women do the majority of the work. A significant portion of the population is poor, under the age of 30, with a preferential selection for boys than girls. This, in the end, amounts to a lot of male youth who are barely monitored and have plenty of time on their hands to do with as they will. The bad elements of the world quickly entice these kids and turn them into problem makers.

Even in cultures where there is no "terrorism," these youth find ways to become menaces. In Tamil Nadu (southern India) for example, there is a word called "udavakaray" which literally means "useless fellow." These tend to be barely educated, young, poor, unemployed males who go about the village tormenting the women. Women are terrified of leaving their houses because of "eve-teasing," a phenomenon so called because these "udavakaray" hang around the wells in the evening when the women come to get their water, and then harrass and molest them. Often they hang around in groups, making them stronger, faster, and more uncontrollable. This type of problem is sadly common across many parts of the developing world that I have been to.

So a worthy X PRIZE would be to find a way to address this issue. How do we create an XPRIZE that would turn the plethora of useless young men in the world into beings of usefulness?? Any thoughts?? (of course, the Taliban and many gangs might argue that they have the solution...but I'm not leaning in that route, and frankly we need to guard against exactly this in our development of this prize concept!)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Newest Comment on a potential Health Care X PRIZE

I wanted to share a comment that someone posted about a potential Health Care X PRIZE, which we are exploring with the help of WellPoint, Inc. We're looking for the areas that we should be exploring or trying to fix within the Healt Care System.

We'd love to hear other people's thoughts!

"The prize should focus on dramatically lowering the total cost of care (50-75%) while improving or holding constant quality and access. Total costs include all expenses involved in the diagnosis, treatment, resolution and on-going management of the injury, disease or other health problem. Focusing on the total cost of care means we avoid cost shifting from one stakeholder group to another and we are forced to align incentives.

The prize should be scoped to one high cost/risk patient population. Ideally, the prize will not target a specific process or subsystem in the healthcare system but provide a systemic goal (e.g. reduce the total cost of care for diabetes by 50-75%) and let the participants figure out what needs to be changed and how to achieve that.

This will likely require an emphasis on a chronic care model, re-alignment of incentives to focus payers, providers and patients on outcomes/value (or the behaviors we believe produce them), sophisticated demand/capacity management disciplines, a radical simplification of the concept of health insurance and increased support for consumerism."

Gratitude and other thoughts on the Mumbai shootings

(This was supposed to go out earlier, and I accidentally messed up the posting times. Please excuse this delay!)

Several of you wrote to enquire after the team, our extended team in India who were working on this project, and on a more personal note, about my family and friends. Thank you so much for doing so. Fortunately everyone is fine and well, and we are all extremely grateful. Our hearts go out to all the victims, their families, and Republic of India at large.

During this period, it was very interesting to read the comments and thoughts bubbling up from within the blogosphere, particularly from the Indian and South Asian bloggers. There was irritation and frustration with the Indian government for many reasons (including blatantly pointing the finger at Pakistan before any information had come out), the embarrassingly lacksidaisical/sluggish response of the authorities to the situation, and anger with the media for unnecessarily blowing things out of proportion and scaring the population that could do without it.

And then there were beautiful and feeling messages of sympathy, and a good kind of anger...general fatigue with violence and a common need for unity and patriotism. This I saw coming from all around the world - young and old, irrespective of nationality. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis (formerly Pakistanis) and Indians urged their governments NOT to jump to conclusions about the other...this wasn't about settling age-old scores, rather working together to find their common enemy. Muslims and Hindus from around the world reached out to each other across the internet to share pain. Where governments fail, technology and humanity will not (Twitter, and the use of mobile phones is proof).

I don't know if the terrorists realize this, but they are just shooting themselves in the foot everytime they do something stupid like this. I agree that there are a large number of idiots in the world, but there are (fortunately) a phenomenal number of good and intelligent people alongside who are getting increasingly aware of how desperately they need to wake up and help this aching world. Come on people, let's do this...

Global Development at its best perhaps...

Some great reading to support the above:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Stump Speech for "The Capacitor Challenge"

The group behind the Crazy Green Idea? Video "The Capacitor Challenge" has their stump speech in. Have a read, and then head over to the X PRIZE website to vote for your favorite Crazy Green Idea!

When we first imagined The Capacitor Challenge, I was busy with other film projects and my friend Bryan Le was busy putting together ideas for his research concept. He wanted inspiration to develop a long-term technology that would change the course of the environmental crises looming in the future, so he searched through papers, publications, and technologies among universities and companies until he happened to re-discover the X Prize Foundation.

And that’s how he found the Crazy Green Idea contest; here was a chance to send a unified grand challenge to the scientific and engineering communities across the globe. He came to me knowing together we could voice our idea with clarity and resolution.

Capacitors can recharge nearly instantaneously and survive the entire life-time of the electric device. They are durable, non-explosive and easily reused due to their incredibly long lifespan. On top of that, they provide electricity at nearly 99% efficiency. And unlike their electrochemical counterparts, capacitors hold no toxic compounds that will leech into the ground and damage the environment after disposal.

An ultra-capacitor capable of storing energy at the level of a common battery has obvious benefits for portable electric devices. However, we envision major revolutions in energy with wide-spread use of electric vehicles and energy storage stations as a result of capacitor breakthroughs. We cannot continue to see valuable petroleum resources be atrociously burned without regard for the pollution it produces or the political turmoil it inflicts. Nor can we endure the inefficiency of power stations that must wastefully operate in times of low-use while unable to keep up demand during high-use of electricity.

Focus on energy storage will pave the way for on-demand electrical energy systems. When electricity is not in use, it can be stored efficiently and safely. When electricity is needed, it can be reliably called upon in a matter of seconds. Electrical efficiency is necessary for a world that will rely on new energy sources to fuel our societies.

Our intention is to impact a world that has been ravaged by toxic pollutants, chemical waste, and harmful emissions. We are a team of undergraduates from the University of California in Irvine working to change the course of the environmental damage that exists today, so we may live in hope for a sustainable future.

--Kyle Good
--Bryan Le

Child Soldiers: Guns and Ammo

Where are all the guns and ammo for these wars coming from?? (photo source:

sent me an email this morning with an excellent question. He says, "I have greatly enjoyed your post on child soldiers...its disturbing on so many levels. My question is about the weapons. Where are they coming from? How do they have weapons, but no money or food?"

In response, I will point you to two excellent sources - one a movie and the other a documentary - that explain the issue better than I ever could.

1. Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage. Its the enormously and disturbingly honest story of gunrunners, people who are the arms dealers and peddlers. Trailer is here (and below):

2. A FAR better source of information is this PBS Frontline/World documentary about gunrunners in Sierra Leone. Check out the website for scripts, exclusive interviews with the UN detectives who uncovered the story, the filmmakers, and other resources. Unfortunately, the video is not embeddable. But you can watch the video and other resources here.

Anyone want a SpaceShipOne for a holiday gift?

A replica rocket of SpaceShipOne was listed by Dvice as #2 on a list of toys that both adults and kids would love.

Model rockets are always fun, and launching SpaceShipOne up to 400ft seems like it would be a lot of fun. I think it would be more fun if there was a miniature Brian Binnie action figure that you could pop inside to go along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Child Soldiers: Newton Aduaka's TEDTalk

Filmmaker Newton Aduaka discusses his powerful film "Ezra" at the 2007 TED Africa Conference (photo courtesy: Afromusing)

Continuing on yesterday's theme, watch filmmaker Newton Aduaka's talk at the TED Africa Conference in 2007. In his talk, he showcases three clips of how interprets film, and finally mid-way through the talk, he shows us a clip from his award-winning film Ezra The Story of a Boy Soldier. Aduaka ends his talk with a very powerful point..."Africa should go forward, but we must look backwards so we don’t that we never go back there again!"

Here is the trailer to "Ezra" (also see below):

And here is Aduaka's excellent talk from the TED Africa Conference in 2007:

Can X PRIZEs Spur Innovation?

Dr Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, muses about innovation in the latest issue of BusinessWeek magazine. (photo courtesy: BusinessWeek)

Can X PRIZEs spur innovation?? In this BusinessWeek article, Peter Diamandis, Chairman/CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, muses the topic. Here's a snippet:

His X Prize, moreover, has become a template for organizations, companies, and even the federal government. The format: Announce an attention-grabbing goal, find a benefactor who'll put up the prize money or pay for it yourself, wait as the brightest minds race each other to come up with the answer, and then bask when you declare a winner. Today there are dozens of copycat contests in the U.S. and Europe for everything from curing Lou Gehrig's disease to solving age-old math conundrums. Awards run from $75,000 to $50 million.

But as contests have proliferated, so, too, have questions about their ability to push forward the boundaries of technology. Are they better at yielding breakthroughs than traditional research and development? Can Lotto-size payouts solve monstrously complex problems? Or are they a fad that stokes vanity-driven entrepreneurs focused on smaller-scale challenges?

Diamandis, not surprisingly, predicts that cash competitions will resolve some of "the world's grand challenges." When he proposed a prize for space travel, he recalls, "a lot of people also told me it was a stupid idea and that no one could win it." But he concedes there are problems that you can't simply "throw a prize at." And at least some scientists see contests as ultimately immaterial in their fields. Richard Gibbs, director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, notes that researchers have made huge advances in understanding DNA without the lure of a sweepstakes. "The X Prize is cute," he says, "but is not really the driver." Still, he and others say what's the harm if contests generate excitement about science. [...]

[read more]

Monday, November 24, 2008

Child Soldiers: A Long Way Gone...

In his riveting autobiography, Ishmael Beah tells of his previous life as a child soldier (photo source: John Madere)

I've spent the few precious moments of free time I've had in the past week engrossed in Ishmael Beah's autobiography A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, the true story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone. War is often so glamorized - the idea of patriotic sacrifice, the G.I Joe notion of playing with guns, testosterone, the idea of avenging your blood or whatever else, etc - that this offered a rare glimpse into the absolute inhumanity of war. The first half of the book is about life before and during Sierra Leone's civil war; the second half is about rehabilitation. You can venture a guess about which one is more painful to read about. It was also very educational. I never understood how children became soldiers, but Ishmael sheds light on this issue as well. Now I understand how easy it is to be sucked into that world.

, Beah reflects and analyzes the psychology behind his experiences:

[related post: Child Soldier turned Rapper Emmanuel Jal]

A Singularity University?

The next Board Member that I want to introduce you to is Dr. Ray Kurzweil. I was inspired to write about him this morning because of an article I found on a potential "Singularity University."

Dr. Ray Kurzweil is a prolific writer, inventor and futurist. As one of the leading inventors of our time, Ray was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.

Among Ray's many honors, he is the recipient of the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson Prize, the world's largest for innovation. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. And in 2002, he was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame, established by the US Patent Office.

He has received thirteen honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.

Among the many reasons that you might know Ray are some of his books. I've read two of them: The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near. These futuristic predictions are based around the idea that as the processing speed of computers increases exponentially, eventually computers will become more intelligent than humans, and possibly even become fully conscious. The books go on to explore the potential implications of such an event. I don't know enough about what he was talking about to offer any sort of opinion on whether this is feasible or not, but Dr. Kurzweil certainly presented a convincing argument.

The article that inspired me to write about Dr. Kurzweil was in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and talks about what a University would look like in a post-Singularity world, where computers are actually intelligent enough to be the teachers, rather than just a tool. I won't ruin the article for you, so I'd suggest reading it.

Once you've read the article, I want to know what you think of the Singularity! Either let me know here, or contact me on twitter: xprize.

Have fun!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cool Rainwater Harvesting Video

This video about rainwater harvesting is making its rounds around the Indian web culture. I LOVED it. We need more things like this...

Hat tip to Shekhar Kapur.

New Facebook Group

The X PRIZE Foundation finally has a group on facebook, joining all of our active prizes. Not sure why it took so long, but better late than never, right?

Here's the link:

At the time of writing, we're at about 12 fans (it's only been up for an hour). We're looking for a lot more, so please join up!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blog Spotlight: WhiteAfrican

Erik Hersman (aka WhiteAfrican, aka HASH) presents at a conference.

Emeka, my colleague at the X PRIZE Foundation , introduced me to White African, a blog by a mzungu (East African term for caucasian) who spent most of his formative years in different parts of rural Africa. As a result, Erik is a wonderful blend of two cultures - American and African (he's somebody I would call African-American!).

I've now spoken to Erik a few times and have been struck by his depth of knowledge, commitment to developing Africa into an innovation hub, and passion for making the world better. He's a man of action, something I respect deeply. Follow his blog to keep up with the growth of African technology innovation. It provides a distinctly different picture to the typical Africa that's depicted in the media. His blog happily depicts the continent as being a vibrant, growing hub of activity.

Below is a video from his latest post that speaks to his own passion as well as links to two other projects that he is working on: Afrigadget (another blog I would highly recommend) and Ushahidi (crowd sourcing information network).

I'm proud to say that Erik (blogger name HASH) is part of our African advisory council for the X PRIZE in Global Development. If you know other people, including yourself, who could be valuable additions to our advisory council, PLEASE let us know. We are always on the lookout for the right people.


Board Member: Will Wright

I'd like to introduce you all to another one of our Board Members: Will Wright.

Will is a video game designer who's been in the news a lot lately for his new video game Spore. I haven't played it yet, but I heard it's quite a bit of fun. The idea is that you control the evolution of a species from bacteria to space faring civilization. I've had a lot of fun looking at the Spore: Creature Creator contests that have been springing up all over the internet.

Many of you will probably know Will better for another video game series that he created: Sim City and the Sims.

These games essentially revolutionized the video game industry. I remember playing Sim City in my seventh grade science class, and trying to create a better game than the rest of the kids in my class. And of course, controlling the lives of families in the Sims was like taking "playing house" to the next level.

The great thing about Will's games is that while they're fun, there's also an educational component built into all of them. In Spore, you get to explore an understand the concept of evolution, and try to find ways to make sure that the species you create survives. In Sim City, you learned about things like management and multi-tasking. As we're starting to see more and more I think, video games can be more than just entertainment; they can teach us things in a unique and fun way.

Which games that Will Wright created did/do you play? What are your favorites?

What are the best educational video games out there?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How Globes are Made

(photo source: Bill in Ash Vegas)

I'm really enjoying this Chicago History Museum Youtube channel. Most of the videos are too Chicago-centric, but there are some that are generally interesting. Being a big traveler myself, and considering the nature of the prize that I'm working on, I thought this video about how globes are made would be of interest to you.

Another typical day in the office

I was inspired by prazz'z blog describing her typical day in the office, so I thought I'd share another perspective. I'm a Communications Specialist for the X PRIZE Foundation, so my typical day includes a huge amount of two things: reading and writing. Obviously reading and writing e-mails is a large part of it (does anyone's job anymore not include a lot of e-mailing?), but I also have a lot of other things to read and write. BEcause I work across so many different areas (energy, exploration, life sciences, global development), I have to keep up on news from all of them, so I know what the trends are in the media. I also read a lot about social networking, and how to make the most of it in a business scenario.

If you have been to our website, you'll notice a scrolling newsfeed on the right side of the page. I also read all of those articles (and more) and pick which ones go in that feed. Though I must admit I've been a bit lax in that area lately. Maybe I'll go read them all when I finish writing this.

Then, I spend a lot of time writing; either blogs like this, twitter posts, or more formal things like press releases, pitch letters, or web content.

As most of you know, the X PRIZE Foundation also does a far number of events, and as a member of the Communications team, I help to plan and organize those. This is actually one of my favorite parts of the job. I really enjoy the attention to detail that's required to plan something like the Progressive Autmotive X PRIZE announcement at the New York Auto Show last March. Also, typically I get to go to these events to help coordinate with the press, which is always fun. I love to travel.

Then of course there's the day to day things: answering questions, organizing files, getting water, editing documents.

All in all it's a great place to work.

Here's a picture of my desk, because I know how interesting that will be for people:

Oh, and I can't forget the most important part of my job: taking pictures of the awesome socks my co-workers wear.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A typical day for me

(photo source: Mike Rohde)

Q. What's a typical day like for you in the office?

(this question came courtesy of a friend of mine who has been reading this blog and doesn't get what I do in the office all day!)

A. Firstly, I speak only for everyone in the organization has a different role and therefore different responsibilities and types of work.

There isn't really a "typical day in the office." I have something called an "ideal day," and then there's the reality of what my day is like.

An "ideal day" would be an 8-hour workday with clearly outlined tasks and deliverables that I'm able to get through, go home and have a life. More importantly, it would mean that with everyday I would get slowly and methodically closer to finding this X PRIZE.

The reality of what my day is like is quite different. I'm often traveling, or preparing for a trip, or compiling the notes and minutes from a trip I just came back from. I often have phone meetings or in-person meetings with people/organizations who are interested, can potentially advise or provide significant value to the project. There's a lot of documentation, which takes up quite a bit of my time. And then there's the research, thinking, and formulating of a strategy and prize concept.

Because we run a very lean operation, I have many roles to fulfill. Granted I am a project manager...but largely, I'm a project manager of myself and the project. There's Emeka, who dedicates approximately 20% of his time to this project, and myself. Between the two of us, we need to engage the world and push forward a well-thought-out project that will ultimately have a significant impact on the world's poor. Essentially, no two days are alike. Most days I'm grateful for where I am and humbled by the responsibilities I have been given. And I hope, from the bottom of my heart, that I can fulfill them. Because...done right, this project could really change things for the world, in a very good way.

Stump Speech for "The Energy Independence X PRIZE"

Localthinktank, creator of "The Energy Independence X PRIZE" video finalist to the "What's Your Crazy Green Idea?" Video Contest, has written a blog entry explaining his idea, and why he thinks it will make a good X PRIZE.

To vote for your favorite Crazy Green Idea, visit our voting page:

We'll have more "Stump Speeches" from the other finalists soon!

"The Energy Independence XPrize is the idea that will affect the greatest number of people around the world and help solve the most pressing and important issues of our time.

Energy is the life blood of the world. Our progress as a society rises and falls on our ability to effectively and safely create and use energy. This is the most revolutionary Xprize idea because it provides 3 fundamental benefits:

1. Energy Independence: The ability to create and produce large amounts of energy in a confined space will not only directly benefit the average family (in this case in their monthly budget by creating a completely energy independent home), but open the door to many areas, including but not limited to:

A. Community and Cities: The blackouts that so plaque large cities like Los Angeles (and cost billions in lost productivity) will become a thing of the past as the technologies developed from this Xprize are expanded to cover larger and larger areas.

B. 3rd world development: Communities in 3rd world countries that currently do not have access to power due to infrastructure and transmission costs will, through this Xprize, be able to develop and grow in ways that will benefit millions around the world.

C. So many other benefits: If each home had an independent supply of power, how much easier would it be to create and sell electric cars? How much pollution would that reduce? The potential benefits are staggering!

2. Safeguard against the effects of Natural Disasters and Terrorism: In this age where terrorism and natural disasters are now commonplace worries, having decentralized power is not only critical for national security, but to the social and financial health of all nations. When hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, one of the worst problems was that when the centralized power grid went down, it shut down all the water filtration stations, water pumps and hospitals in the city. If every pumping station, hospital, and home in the future is individually powered, it will make a huge difference in the outcome of these disasters.

3. 20% Reduction in Nationwide pollution levels: Balancing the effects of pollution and Energy creation is an issue that affects us all. The United States has been hesitant to enter into the 1997 Kyoto agreement in large part because the 33 percent reduction in pollution levels would have directly affected the economy. Residential pollution accounts of over 20% of the nations’ pollution level. An Xprize that helps to eliminate this is something that needs to be taken seriously.

When Spaceship One crossed the threshold of space, we saw a small company do two things that many thought could not be done. We saw a quantum leap in both technology and cost reduction in a field that badly needed both. This Xprize will create leaps in technologies that control Energy Creation, Storage and Transmission. Vote for the Energy Independence Xprize and make a difference that will ultimately affect you, your family, your community and the world!


Monday, November 17, 2008

What the heck is going on in Congo

(photo courtesy: lonely planet)

There is a LOT going on in the Congo and I've gotten a few questions from confused friends and family who get their news from very Americo-centric sources. Here are some resources to help out:

1. How to Become an Expert on Congo in just Five Minutes by

Friday, November 14, 2008

Peer Water Exchange at Blue Planet Run

On the theme of drinking water, here's another organizational methodology to chew on. You've probably heard of Blue Planet Run (BPR), and if not, its a good time to check them out.

BPR's mission is straightforward: Create global awareness of the world's safe drinking water and mobilize the citizens of the world to solve the problem. And they want to provide 200 million people with safe drinking water by 2027.

They've definitely been doing an excellent job with their awareness campaign. They came to my attention after I saw copies of their excellent book of the same name (Blue Planet Run: The Race to Provide Safe Drinking Water for the World) on everyone's coffee table - in my doctor's office, the waiting room of a magazine company, at the airport lounge.

Then I talked to Lisa Nash, their dynamic CEO, and loved another of their projects they had going on - a novel concept called the Peer Water Exchange (PWX). Every few months, members of the peer group (which can consist of anyone who wants to be involved in this decision making) review the grant applications that come in and then vote to allot money as they see fit. Think academic peer-review or open-source allocation. Makes for a transparent, participatory, and democratic process. I don't know how well its working, but it looks interesting and I would encourage more people to get involved.

Quote of the Day and Picture of the Week

I regularly subscribe to a blog called "quotes of the day." Today's quote was particularly apt. Its something I try hard to avoid doing in my own work because it is so dangerously true, and just too easy to go down the path of.

Andrew Carnegie said:
One of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity.
All charity is not good. Its not enough to just try to do good. It must be done and it must be done well. I encourage you to call me out if you think at any point that this Prize is going down the path of "indiscriminate charity." That is worse than doing nothing at all.

Also, our picture of the week. There is something heartbreaking and yet endearing about this picture. Unfortunately I have no reference for who took this picture. It was sent to me by a friend.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dean Kamen's water machine on the Colbert Report

Yes, as PL pointed out, Dean Kamen had demo-ed his water machine on the The Colbert Report on World Water Day. I looked all over for it and found it here. Hopefully you can see it.

PL, who wishes to remain anonymous, also asked what my thoughts on Kamen's machine were. I haven't studied his machine, so its hard for me to comment intelligently. I have a lot of respect for Dean Kamen and what he is attempting to do, but having worked several years in this field, I can say with great certainty that it isn't the fancy technology that solves the world's water problems, its the simple things. Too many times I've come across technology that was inappropriately designed for the poor, and these died miserable deaths. Often they sat on shelves, unused for years and/or quickly fell into disrepair because of high operation and maintenance costs. Its not that I doubt Kamen's machine works. Hardly the case...infact i'm certain it is technically very sound. The question is, will it sustain in the villages I've worked in...that is a completely different answer.

From what I can see, Kamen's machine is a distiller. Distiller's are high energy technologies (essentially it uses distillation to clean the water), which makes it very expensive. I'm curious about the cost of the machine and how much energy it uses. That will decide whether its a worthy investment or not.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to Innovate: Interview with Dean Kamen

Inventor extraordinaire, Dean Kamen addressed an audience from his Segway.

U.K newspaper The Telegraph recently did a major write-up and interview with X PRIZE Board Member and inventor extraordinaire Dean Kamen. Part of it covers his dreams to address the problems of the "third world."

Kamen's latest project may well be his most ambitious yet: he wants to bring electricity and clean water to the Third World. His plan is not the creation of centralised infrastructure for power grids and sewage treatment, but a small-scale and, relatively, cheap solution. 'Like, how about a device that a couple of people can haul into a village that can turn any source of water - which is typically toxic these days, that kills two million kids a year - into a thousand litres of water a day. How about if we could carry something into a village that could give people a way to make electricity?'

After 12 years working on these two problems, the engineers at Deka now have their solutions on show at the workshops in Manchester. The first is the 'Slingshot', a large box about the size of an office photocopier, sheathed in black protective foam, that can cleanse water of any contaminant from radionuclides to sewage, and run for years at a time without maintenance. The second is another metal box, five feet square, connected to a bottle of compressed gas, which emits a low murmur of humming energy. This is a Stirling engine, similar to the one installed in his electric car, but large and efficient enough to electrify an entire village, which can be driven by any locally available source of heat. Both devices have already been proved amazingly effective: one six-month test has used a Stirling engine to provide electric light to a village in Bangladesh, powered by burning the methane from a pit filled with cow dung; Slingshot has undergone similar tests in a settlement in rural Guatemala. But Kamen has yet to find a commercial partner to manufacture either of the devices for the customers that need them most. 'The big companies,' he says, 'long ago figured out - the people in the world that have no water and have no electricity have no money.' He's tried the United Nations, too, but discovered a Catch-22: non-governmental organisations won't buy the devices until they're in full production.

[read more]

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Committing to Good

Greg Carr, dot com millionaire, has quietly and steadily invested his personal wealth into transforming countries slowly and surely. (photo source: Harvard Crimson)

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Good travels at a snail's pace. Those who want to do good are not selfish, they are not in a hurry, they know that to impregnate people with good requires a long time."

Last weekend, I saw this video (also embedded below) on 60 Minutes, a respected American news magazine program, that told the story of Greg Carr's dedication to lifting Mozambique out of poverty. He doesn't have impractical dreams. He is committed, and he is in it for the long haul. In all he has invested $40 million of his own money over 20 years to develop the Gorongosa National Park, and the people that survive on it for sustenance, by trucking in animals to rehabilitate the place and bring in tourists, as well as employing and training the villagers in the vicinity to protect and conserve. Along the way, Carr has learned some powerful lessons about doing good well which he shares in his interview. Its a beautiful and powerful story. If you can't see the video below or have low bandwidth, you can read a transcript of the story here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Blog Spotlight: Blood and Milk

Lots of blogs to choose what's the best?? (photo source: Annie Mole)

I regularly read several blogs on my feed (thank god for Google Reader!). Not all are good or even remotely interesting...most are just noise...but it takes time to determine this. It can be overwhelming!

As I come across really good and relevant blogs particularly with regards to global development, I'll highlight them here. I hope that you will do the same for me.

One of the blogs that I've stumbled across and greatly enjoy, is this extremely well-written blog called Blood and Milk. Written and maintained by Alanna Shaikh, an experienced international aid worker, it provides a perspective on field work, and examines ideas and practices that work in the field of international aid. I particularly like how honest and analytical she is (both rare traits in this field) and how she is trying to open up the often glamorized, and secretive world of aid and disaster relief to the public.

Here is a sample of one of her posts, titled Ethics and International Development. It highlights issues that have personally frustrated me, and few others realize...
On the surface, relief and development seems like the simplest, most ethical work in the world. Helping people in need looks easy. Like most work worth doing, though, it’s extraordinarily complicated.

These are just a few, representative, ethical dilemmas:
1. Giving stuff instead of training and capacity building creates a culture of dependency. People rely on what you are giving them instead of finding a way to get it themselves. They get in the habit of looking outside their communities for positive change. And when you stop providing aid, they’ll have lost the skill of providing for themselves. Providing training and technical assistance requires huge amounts of money to be paid to outside experts, while leaving immediate needs unmet.

2. Hiring your staff locally and paying them well distorts the local labor market and pulls local talent away from government, local NGOs, and other domestic institutions. Paying market average salaries makes it hard to recruit and retain staff. It leaves your staff struggling to survive, and guarantees resentment of expatriate employees. Programs based on expat labor don’t help the local economy, and they cost a fortune.

3. Following host government policy will often require you to move so slowly that people suffer, waiting for your programs to get going. You may be forced to use outdated models for your programs. Ignoring host government policy erodes local capacity and weakens the government, which can lead to mass suffering if the government loses control of the country.

4. Paying bribes to get things done promotes a culture of corruption and is illegal under US law. Refusing to pay bribes will get you kicked out of the country, abandoning your partner communities.
[read more...]

Friday, November 7, 2008

Picture of the week

I saw this picture on Time Magazine's Pictures of the Week. I think it explains why one of the many areas we are focusing on is transportation. :-)

Comments on a Health Care X PRIZE

When we announced our partnership with WellPoint, Inc. to explore the possibility of an X PRIZE in Health Care, we opened up a section of the "Health Care page to get ideas from the public about what they think we should be trying to fix. We've received a number of great ideas already, and I want to share some of them with you over the coming days.

The first one I want to share is this:

"I see 3 categories for this challenge:

1) Behavior change: What are the best methods for clinicians, payers, or other entities to encourage people to make better choices about their health that prevent long-term cost burdens on the system?

2) Administration and delivery of care: It's no longer economical for physicians to oversee all aspects of a patient's cycle of care. What are the largest administrative and consultation burdens for MDs that can be done by more cost effective players like health coaches, disease management providers, and NPs and PAs? In other words, how can we use MDs to set the direction for a patient's care, and have other more cost effective entities see it through?

3) Value-driven competition: How do we set up systems where providers and payers compete on outcomes in addition to cost. Member facing quality and cost transparency is a third rail for some doctors and payers. How do we get them to get over their paranoia and allow patients to see how effective and safe hospitals and doctors are?"

What do the rest of you think of these categories? Aree these the right areas to explore? Especially for a prize? Do you think that a prize can change behavior?

Let us know here, or on the Health Care page:

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What's Your Crazy Green Idea? Contest

So, for those of you who don't know, the "What's Your Crazy Green Idea?" Contest on YouTube has stopped accepting submissions. The deadline was October 31. We received 133 eligible entries, and are in the process of judging the entries to find the top three videos. There were a number of great videos submitted, and we're very proud of all of them. The public voting session will start on November 15th, so keep an eye out on to find out more details about how to do that.

I'd encourage all of you to check out our submissions, because there were a ton of great ideas. For some blogging fun, if people want to submit their favorite videos in a comment, I'll embed those videos in this blog post.