Tuesday, November 25, 2008

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. [...]

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