Sunday, December 6, 2009

Commercial Spaceflight for the Rest of Us - Congratulations to Virgin Galactic

By Peter H. Diamandis

Chairman/CEO, X PRIZE Foundation

Today Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites rolled out SpaceShipTwo (SS2) a commercial passenger carrying spaceship derived from the winning ship which captured the $10M Ansari X PRIZE ( for spaceflight in 2004. While SpaceShipOne (SS1) carried only one pilot and two passengers, the much larger SS2 will be flown by two pilots with seats for six paying passengers.

Five years ago, 20,000 people gathered at the Mojave Air & Space Port to watch as Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites, backed by Paul Allen, accomplished what many considered impossible – building and flying a privately funded, privately piloted spaceship, twice, to altitudes above 100 kilometers. On that fateful day, October 4th, when the ship successfully flew its second flight into space, it carried on it the Virgin Logo and a pledge from Richard Branson to fund a commercial version to carry the paying public into space. Well, here we are. The commercial version is now built and will soon start test flights. While the project is a few years behind schedule, it has made incredible strides. Branson and Will Whitehorn (the CEO of Virgin Galactic ( have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to get it to this point and everyone is the space community is very thankful.

Equally of note to the hardware rollout, is the confirmation of the marketplace. Tens of thousands of people have gone online to register for a future seat, and some 250 of them have put down the full $200,000 deposit to be amongst the first to fly.

A new era of private spaceflight is unfolding in a very similar fashion to the early days of aviation. In the decades following the Wright Brothers, “tourism flights” were the primary mechanism by which those early aeronauts earned their living. Barn-storming, as it was called, offered an individual the opportunity to pay a handsome sum (typically a month’s wages) to fly to the death-defying altitude of 5,000 feet from which he/she could view their town from the air. Soon, barnstorming gave way to real aviation businesses such as airmail and passenger point-to-point carriage.

In the same fashion, a number of commercial providers, in addition to Virgin Galactic, will offer space tourism flights in the years ahead. These flights will then be followed by flights carrying scientific experiments and flights conducting astronaut training.

So who else is building vehicles and selling seats? First it should be noted that Space Adventures ( has been carrying privately paying passengers to orbit, to the International Space Station, for the past 9 years using the Russian Soyuz (Disclosure: I am a co-Founder and Managing Director of Space Adventures). Space Adventures has also sold over 100 seats for future suborbital flights at a ticket price of $98,000. In addition to Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures, three other companies fit prominently in this era of private spaceflight. John Carmack, CEO of Armadillo Aerospace ( and creator of the video games ‘Quake’ & ‘Doom’ is developing a passenger carrying suborbital vertical take-off/landing ship. His vehicle is a derivative of the ship which was one of the two winners in the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander X PRIZE Challenge (Masten Space was the other winner). In addition, Jeff Bezos, founder of has started a space exploration company called Blue Origin which has been cloaked in secrecy for the past 5 years. “Blue” as it’s called, is focusing on a variety of human carrying designs, the first of which is a vertical take-off, vertical landing sub-orbital ship. Blue is also rumored to be working on orbital flight as well. The third prominent player is SpaceX (, founded by PayPal Founder, Elon Musk. SpaceX is developing orbital passenger carrying capability using the Dragon Capsule, which will fly about the Falcon-9 booster to orbit carrying future Astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. The first test flight of Dragon/Falcon-9 is scheduled for February 2010.

How cheap could a seat get? First we need to distinguish between sub-orbital and orbital flights. Getting to orbit (i.e. going completely around planet Earth in a 90-minute orbit) is approximately 50-times harder than just going up into space and back down to the Earth on a suborbital flight. Today, Virgin Galactic (a suborbital provider) is selling seats at $200,000. Neither Armadillo or Blue Origin have announced seat prices. But theoretically, in my opinion, we could likely see the price per seat for sub-orbital flights drop rapidly over the next decade to under $50,000 per person. In the orbital world, today, Space Adventures offers a seat to orbit aboard the Russian Soyuz for about $45M+. The first orbital passenger, Dennis Tito, spent $20M and the latest Space Adventures customer, Guy Laliberte, paid in excess of $40M. If all goes well, in the decades ahead, I hope we’ll see the price return to $20M and eventually to a price under $5M per person.

I’d like to also point out how magical it is that SS1 and SS2 are being designed and built by a small group of designers enabled by incredible technology. While it once took the wealth and resources of a nation to fly into space, it is now possible for a smart and dedicated team to build such technology. In the case of SpaceShipTwo, special recognition to Burt Rutan, Scaled CEO, Doug Shane, Scaled designers, Jim Tighe, Bob Morgan, Matt Stinemetze, and Marc Zeitlin and Scaled Flight Test Operations Chief, Pete Siebold.

Ultimately, it’s easy to dream and talk about spaceflight, but it comes down to those who put up their wealth, reputations and time. It is for this reason that today I praise Richard Branson, Will Whitehorn, Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and the Ansari Family for their role in SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. We all share a mutual desire and vision to enable the day when tens of thousands of people will be traveling beyond the Earth on a regular basis.

So, congratulations to the Virgin and Scaled teams for today’s success. I wish you the best of luck in the months ahead as SpaceShipTwo enters into its test flight, and look forward to its first commercial flight in the near future.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Most Valuable Real Estate in the Solar System
Water on Lunar South Pole
By: Peter H. Diamandis, Chairman/CEO, X PRIZE Foundation

Today’s announcement by NASA of significant water on the south pole of the Moon is scientifically critical, economically astounding and extremely important for the long-term future of humanity. Further, this finding now defines the most “valuable real estate in the solar system.”

On October 9th, the LCROSS collision, run by NASA Ames, crashed into the depths of a permanently shadowed crater on the south pole of the Moon. From a scientific point of view, the debris plume resulting from this impact has been analyzed by scientists during the past month, and the results show a significant quantity of water. We now know that the water can be found in the permanently shadowed caters of the Lunar South Pole. This water is probably the remnants of comet collisions with the lunar surface. Likely there may be billions of tons of water, water that can be used to produce rocket fuel or to support future human outposts.
From an economic point of view, water on the Moon is the equivalent of finding “gold in the hills of California.” Translation… there is the potential for a California gold rush to hit the space nations in the years ahead. It may be that governments and/or companies will seek to be first to the ice-fields of the Lunar South Pole and make a claim.

So what’s so interesting about water on the Moon? After all it’s in boundless supplies on Earth. The value of water is its actual physical location on the Moon, a place that is very expensive to travel to. The utility of the water is both as a propellant for rockets and for the maintenance of human life in space. With sufficient water on the Moon, solar energy can be used to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is of course critical for humans to breath and the water important for us to drink. As it turns out, hydrogen (H2) & oxygen (O2) together are one of the most efficient propellants we know. The Space Shuttle Main Engines (some of the most powerful rocket engines in existence), for example, burn O2 and H2 to blast our astronauts off the Earth into orbit. You can think of water as the petroleum of spaceflight… rather than oil that powers our cars, H2 and O2 powers our rocketships.

Today’s launch costs are unfortunately extremely expensive. On the average it costs something on the order of $20,000 per pound to get supplies into low-Earth orbit (where the Int’l Space Station is located) and, optimistically, 10x to 20x that cost, or approximately $400,000 per pound to land something on the Moon’s surface.

So the cost of transporting water to the lunar surface, or oxygen, or hydrogen is about $400,000 per pound or $25,000 per ounce… about twenty-five times the price of gold today!

Revealing water in significant quantities on the Moon could truly be a turning point in space exploration. Who will set up the first water mining plants? Given low-cost availability of water, hydrogen and oxygen, what type of off-Earth economies and exploration will this enable? The question is not too dissimilar to those questions asked when oil was discovered buried deep under the Earth or under the oceans. We eventually designed the technology to mine and extract this precious resource. It’s what we do as humans and entrepreneurs.

The south pole of the Moon has another very important attribute in addition to water, namely the existence of small mountain peaks that are constantly in sunlight, 28 days out of the Lunar cycle and referred to as the “peaks of eternal light.” These peaks which are in the plane of the ecliptic (the plane that the Earth rotates around the sun) will allow for constant illumination of solar panels and heating of the spacecraft. The reason this is important is because the temperature on the Moon plummets from +100 degrees Centigrade to -150 degrees Centigrade as the Moon rotates into and out of direct sunlight.

The proximate location of newly discovered ice-fields, next to these “peaks of eternal light,” will allow for the creation of fuel depots where water is mined and then solar energy is used to break it down to Hydrogen and Oxygen for rocket fuel (a process known as hydrolysis). Think of this location as the ‘Saudi Oil fields’ of the solar system. I could imagine that some governments or corporations will want to race to this real estate and stake their claim in the decade ahead.

I’m particularly excited for all of the teams building vehicles for the Google Lunar X PRIZE ( This is a $30 million competition funded by Google and operated by the X PRIZE Foundation. We’ve offered up a large cash bounty for the first team to privately build and land a robot on the surface of the Moon that can travel, send back photos and video. Think of these vehicles as a low-cost ‘prospector’ looking for information and valuable data, as well as the companies constructing the shovels and picks on the bleeding edge of this potential boom.

Thus far, 21 teams from 11 nations have registered to compete. When they are successful they will demonstrate the ability to reliably travel to the lunar surface and explore for less than a tenth of the current costs envisioned by government programs. Everyone will benefit and these Google Lunar Teams will be on the cutting edge of a gold rush.

If you’ve been wondering where the next Gold Rush is going to take place, look up at the night sky to our closest celestial neighbor. The next economic boom might just be a mere 240,000 miles away on the bella luna.


Contact: Michael Timmons 310-741-4884



Groundbreaking detection will enable further exploration on and beyond the Moon

Playa Vista, Calif. (November 13, 2009) - A team of scientists from NASA announced today that significant amounts of water ice have been found at the Moon’s South Pole. This landmark finding, achieved through analysis of the material blasted from the lunar surface as part of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission, provides a great boon to an international community of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs cultivating a new era of lunar exploration. The announcement also builds upon the groundbreaking research conducted by both NASA and the Indian Space Research Organization, which recently revealed trace amounts of water distributed across the Moon’s surface, previously thought to be more dehydrated that the driest deserts of Earth.

The confirmation of the presence of water ice on the surface of the Moon is a game-changing discovery for space exploration. The Moon, already a hotly pursued destination of space agencies and private companies from around the world, becomes even more desirable with today’s news. With ready supplies of ice, future robotic spacecraft or human astronaut crews could generate not only drinking water but also gaseous hydrogen and oxygen —excellent propellants that could be used for further space exploration beyond the Moon.

The discovery also provides new support for a private race to return to the Moon. The Google Lunar X PRIZE, a $30 million incentive prize created and operated by the X PRIZE Foundation, challenges privately funded teams from around the globe to send robots to explore the lunar surface and return high resolution video and imagery back to the Earth. The prize program includes a Water Detection Bonus, which pays additional prize money to teams that use robots on the lunar surface to provide confirmation of the presence of water ice. Until today’s announcement, it was uncertain if this bonus would be obtainable.

“The presence of significant quantities of ice on the lunar surface catapults the Moon from an interesting waypoint to a critical launching pad for humanity’s exploration of the cosmos,” said X PRIZE CEO and Chairman Peter Diamandis. “We’re entering a new era of lunar exploration – ‘Moon 2.0,’ in which an international group of companies and governments will use the ice and other unique resources of the Moon to help us expand the sphere of human influence, and to help us monitor and protect the Earth.”

The success of the LCROSS mission is just the latest in a recent string of lunar probes. In the past two years, NASA, the Indian Space Research Organization, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and China’s National Space Administration have each placed satellites in orbit around the Moon. With more than twenty teams from eleven countries registered to compete in the Google Lunar X PRIZE, we may be only a few years away from the first private lunar mission, and the first spacecraft to explore the lunar surface since 1976.

“We congratulate the team at NASA and the brilliant engineers and scientists at the other space agencies who have made the discovery announced today possible,” said X PRIZE Foundation Senior Director for Space Prize William Pomerantz. “We’re confident that these exciting findings will inspire a new generation of lunar pioneers to continue to transcend the boundaries of what was previously believed to be possible.”


The X PRIZE Foundation is an educational nonprofit prize institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. In 2004, the Foundation captured world headlines when Burt Rutan, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, built and flew the world’s first private vehicle to space to win the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE. The Foundation has since launched the $10 million Archon X PRIZE for Genomics, the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, and the $10 million Progressive Insurance Automotive X PRIZE. The Foundation is creating and conducting competitions in four prize groups: Exploration (Space and Oceans), Life Sciences, Energy & Environment, and Education & Global Development. The Foundation is widely recognized as the leader in fostering innovation through competition. For more information, please visit


The $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE is an unprecedented international competition that challenges and inspires engineers and entrepreneurs from around the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration. The $30 million prize purse is segmented into a $20 million Grand Prize, a $5 million Second Prize, and $5 million in bonus prizes. To win the Grand Prize, a team must successfully soft land a privately funded spacecraft on the Moon, explore the lunar surface by moving at least 500 meters, and transmit a specific set of video, images, and data back to the Earth. The Grand Prize is $20 million until December 31st, 2012; thereafter it will drop to $15 million until the prize expires on December 31st, 2014. For more information about the Google Lunar X PRIZE, please visit

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Personal Spaceflight Industry – Reflections on the 5 Year Anniversary of the Ansari X PRIZE

By Peter H. Diamandis, X PRIZE Foundation Chairman & CEO

Today, October 4th, is the 5 year anniversary of the winning of the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for spaceflight. The most important legacy and meaning of the Ansari X PRIZE on its 5 year anniversary lies in the fact that the event kicked off a new industry. In the same way that Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927 is seen as an inception point for today’s $300 Billion Aviation industry, I’m extremely proud that the Ansari X PRIZE has created a new personal spaceflight industry. Not only did these historic flights culminate in a beautiful exhibition in the Smithsonian, at the entrance to the National Air & Space Museum, but much more profoundly, the winning flights by SpaceShipOne kicked off the personal spaceflight industry which has had over $1Billion invested in it during the past 5-years.

On this day, I’m taking the liberty to reflect on key questions I’ve been asked over the years…

Ultimately what was the real value of the Competition?

I often think about the real value that the Ansari X PRIZE contributed to this field of spaceflight which I love so much. I think ultimately it gave teams around the world permission to dream, to assemble teams and dare to think about building private spaceships. By creating the structure of the competition, it validated the importance and the viability of private spaceflight. It defined a ‘clear goal’… or a meaningful finish line that teams could pursue. As my friend and early X PRIZE founder Astronaut Byron Lichtenberg is fond of say, “without a target you will miss it every time!” We gave space dreams and entrepreneurs a target to shoot for.

Before the X PRIZE there really wasn’t a generally accepted definition of where space begins… there was always three numbers thrown about, namely 50 kilometers, 100 kilometers and 162 kilometers (100 miles). In retrospect, I’m pleased that we picked 100 km, because it was “just hard enough”… and if we had chosen 100 miles (162 km) we might not be celebrating this 5 year anniversary!

The competition also created the public excitement, expectations, rooting interests and ultimately future customers who were lining up to buy a seat on these Ansari X PRIZE-class of spaceships.

I also feel that we played an important role in driving the regulatory policy that today allows private, reusable, piloted spaceships to carry paying passengers. Only a year before the prize was won, the rules were not defined and there was no clear way for such a ship to be licensed to fly. We worked closely with FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and Associate Administrator Patricia Smith to get the rules in place. Rutan had threatened many times to take his ship out of the country (I think he bluffed that he would launch from Mexico) if needed to fly since the US obviously didn’t (yet) allow these types of flights. Remind me never to play poker against Burt!

Would this have happened anyway?

I have no doubt that eventually someone would have flown privately to space, just like someone would have flown across the Atlantic (in the case of the Orteig Prize and Lindbergh). But I do believe that the structure of the prize, the creation of a competition and the involvement of the public and the media helps to supercharge the paradigm transformation. As humans we have evolved to compete… it is in our genes and we love to watch a competition.

What are my big-picture thoughts on this five-year milestone?

The most important legacy and meaning of the Ansari X PRIZE on its 5 year anniversary lies in the fact that the event kicked off a new industry. In the same way that Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927 is seen as an inception point for today’s $300 Billion Aviation industry, I’m extremely proud that the Ansari X PRIZE has created a new personal spaceflight industry. Not only did these historic flights culminate in a beautiful exhibition in the Smithsonian, at the entrance to the National Air & Space Museum, but much more profoundly, the winning flights by SpaceShipOne kicked off the personal spaceflight industry which has had over $1Billion invested in it during the past 5-years.

There were a lot of X PRIZE competitors, but was there really a race? Was the Da Vinci Project or Armadillo really in the running?

When the X PRIZE was announced on May 18th, 1996 (before it was even called the Ansari X PRIZE), I knew of maybe three or four potential companies (teams) that might compete for the purse. I was shocked in the final result to have 26 teams from 7 nations in the running. In retrospect, I would probably say that the 26 teams could be divided into three groups. The first group, about 1/3 of the field had a shot of building the vehicle… they had a strong design, a strong team and the money or the ability to raise the funding. The second group had a strong design, a strong team but lacked the real ability to raise the funds, and the final group were those who we registered, but were unlikely to ever make anything significant happen beyond their basic concept. We discussed in the early days the criteria for registration, and the conditions under which we would turn away teams. Gregg Maryniak would always remind us that we “didn’t want to turn away those pesky bicycle mechanics from Dayton Ohio.”

In retrospect, Burt truly had a commanding lead ahead of the pack. Both the Da Vinci Project and Armadillo were there as leading contenders, but had a significant way to go in their financing and construction. Regardless, I would always remind the media and remind Burt that Admiral Byrd (first person to fly to the North Pole in an airplane) was the leading contender for the Orteig Prize, but Byrd crashed on take-off and a somewhat unknown aviator, Charles Lindbergh, ultimately claimed the purse.

What would you have done differently?

As I think back to the Ansari X PRIZE, the one thing which I wish we would have done differently is to have offered a second place prize of some amount, perhaps $1M or $2M. Such a second prize would have kept the drive for other teams to continue their development. At this time, a number of the Ansari X PRIZE contenders, and new players that have come forward since them, are pursuing sub-orbital craft. For them the prize is the marketplace. But without the pressure of the prize and its deadline, these teams have relaxed pushing forward and have taken a much more measured course of development.

It’s worth noting that when I asked Burt Rutan what he thought we should have done differently, his answer was a bit of a surprise to me. He would have preferred that we required three actual humans onboard the two winning flights rather than a pilot plus the weight and volume equivalent of the two passengers. Clearly the X PRIZE offered this alternative option (weight & volume rather than actual humans) as a safety measure. I think Burt would have wanted the excuse to ride in the back seat himself.

Now that several X PRIZE competitions have been launched, what makes a good X PRIZE vs. a not-so-good X PRIZE?

The X PRIZE Foundation and its entire team have learned a lot over the past 15 years. With a team of nearly 50 people, we’ve invested over 500 human-years into studying and learning about incentive prizes, what works and what doesn’t. We’ve studied other great successes like the work done by DARPA, NetFlix, GoldCorp and more others. Recently I wrote a detailed paper called “Using Incentive Prizes to Drive Creativity, Innovation and Breakthroughs” (available on the X PRIZE website for download) which outlines the cumulative thinking on this matter. In summary I would say that a Great X PRIZE is one that is telegenic, clearly defined goal, simple to explain, addresses a market failure (or area that is stuck) and something that can be won by a small dedicated team.

How do you feel about Virgin Galactic?

The fact that the Virgin logo was on the side of SpaceShipOne on October 4th 2004 was fantastic. To be honest, at the time, I was really somewhat Angry that Richard Branson had pulled off yet another marketing coup and capture the prime real estate for the Virgin brand (we had originally wanted to have the Ansari X PRIZE logo in that spot). But I quickly changed my point of view. Clearly Richard and his entire team are the marketing geniuses. But in the days and years following the winning of the $10M purse, I’ve come to appreciate that having the Virgin brand on the ship that day was really a success for the X PRIZE as well. Had the SS1 flight only ended up as a museum piece and a historical story, it really would have been somewhat of a failure. It is the fact that the winning flights ended up creating an industry and the fact that this industry was born co-temporal with the winning of the prize that is great news. So thank you Richard, Will Whitehorn, Alex Tai for taking the risk and moving the industry forward!

What prizes is the X PRIZE operating today? What is their Status?

Since the award of the Ansari X PRIZE, three additional competitions have been launched. Each of these is stretching our mission and our reach. They are:

  • Archon X PRIZE for Genomics - $10 million prize for the first team to successfully sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days. Thus far we have about 9 teams registered with another 5 or 6 teams on the wings waiting to register. I would be surprised if this prize was not claimed in the next 24 months.

  • Google Lunar X PRIZE - $30 million prize for the first privately funded teams to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth. Thus far we have 21 teams registered from 11 nations. The recent discover of H20 and OH in the lunar soil makes this prize more important than ever. Each of these vehicles being developed represents future “prospecting” missions looking for resources on the Earth’s nearest celestial neighbor.

  • Progressive Automotive X PRIZE - $10 million prize for the team that can demonstrate an automobile which is fast, safe, manufacturable, affordable and exceeds 100 MPGe (energy equivalent) fuel economy. I was blown away that we had 134 different designs that registered. We will see this competition come to a win in 2010.

How does the Lunar Lander Challenge, which may be reaching something of a climax this year, compare with the Ansari X PRIZE atmosphere?

I would be remised if I didn’t mention the amazing success of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, a $2M competition that the X PRIZE operates in cooperation with NASA (who provides the $2 million purse). The competition is challenging teams to create a rocket that can launch a vertical takeoff and landing that achieves the total delta-v needed for a vehicle to move between the surface of the Moon and its orbit. What is amazing about this competition is the teams and what they have been able to accomplish with a small part-time team of people (typically 3 – 8) working on 5 or 6-figure budgets. While this competition hasn’t had the visibility and historic significance of Ansari, I’m very much proud of what we are doing here. The 4 companies that are actually building and demonstrating hardware (nominally Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space, Unreasonable Rocket and True Zero have been flying vehicles) are creating a cottage industry of propulsion engineers that will give us the experience base needed to fuel entrepreneurial spaceflight efforts. The engine, for example, being used by Armadillo in the NGLLC is the same engine that they will use to power their sub-orbital human carrying vehicles in the next 24 months.

What Space Prizes are you excited about going forward? What would you recommend to NASA’s Centennial Challenges program?

We’ve thought about space prizes along the following lines:

  • Rapid point-to-point travel, say NY to Paris in less than 60 minutes;

  • An Orbital Debris X PRIZE… A prize for the team able to target and remove a specific pieces of orbital debris.

  • Asteroid rendezvous and mapping

  • Asteroid deflection – demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid in a precise and controlled fashion

Perhaps my favorite space X PRIZE and the one that I’m spending the most time promoting is what I call a “Beamed Energy Propulsion X PRIZE.” If you stop and think about it, the form of propulsion used today hasn’t changed in over a thousand years… Since the invention of fireworks by the Chinese. Basically you burn (oxidize) a material in a tube, hot gases come out one end and the vehicle flies in the opposite direction. Sure our rockets have gotten bigger and more efficient, but the basic design remains unchanged.

The concept I’m excited about is demonstrating propulsion that uses a ground based energy source, typically high-energy directed microwave beams that are precisely aimed at a rocketship that absorbs the energy using it to heat a working fluid (typically hydrogen or water) that is then expended out of the nozzle. Such a system (which I believe is very feasible today) would revolutionize propulsion.

Draft guidelines for such an X PRIZE might look something like:

  • Demonstrate a fully-reusable system able to launch a 10-kilogram payload to 30 kilometer altitude which derives 100% of its energy from a ground-based beamed power system

  • Recover the launch system and payload and repeat the launch within 48 hours

  • Team can replace no more than 10% percent of the dry mass between launches

What future prizes are you interested in outside of space?

The prizes of most interest outside of the space realm are the following:

  • Healthcare X PRIZE – Must improve healthcare value by 50% in a 10,000 person community during a three year trial, changing health financing, care delivery and create new incentives to improve health value for individuals and communities (funded by WellPoint, Inc.)

  • TB Diagnostics – Develop a fast, portable, accurate diagnostic system that can rapidly diagnose tuberculosis (the second most lethal infectious disease in the developing world). (funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation)

  • Ocean X PRIZE Suite – Focusing on research, exploration, conservation and healing to improve the Earth’s Oceans. In particular we are looking at prize concepts for mapping the Ocean’s floor and developing efficient, safe and affordable human transportation to the Ocean floor (funded by Eric Schmidt).

  • Bionics – Develop a set of prosthetic biomechanical legs that allow a paraplegic the ability to walk and function normally in society at the same time that these legs could allow a person to climb a mountain.

  • AI Physician – Develop an Artificial Intelligence that can diagnose a patient through a natural language interview at the same level of accuracy as a board certified physician.

  • Autonomous Car -- There are two versions of this prize that we are thinking about. The first is for the first autonomous car that can drive non-stop from LA to Washington DC, 100% autonomously, do it within 3 days and obey all of the traffic laws. The second version is the equivalent of the “Big Blue” chess match. This prize would be for the first autonomous car to win a grand prix race against a top seated human driver.

How does the X PRIZE Foundation and the recently founded Singularity University fit together?

Both organizations are focused on future breakthroughs. While the X PRIZE Foundation is in the business of clearly defining and articulating these challenges, the Singularity University ( is focused on attracting and educating the graduate students who will ultimately form the teams to competing in these future X PRIZEs.

How do the recent water-findings on the Moon affect the Google Lunar X PRIZE?

Today’s launch costs are unfortunately extremely expensive. On the average it costs something on the order of $20,000 per pound to get supplies into low-Earth orbit (where the Int’l Space Station is located) and, optimistically10x to 20x that cost, or approximately $400,000 per pound, to land something on the Moon’s surface.

So the cost of transporting water to the lunar surface, or oxygen, or hydrogen is about $400,000 per pound or $25,000 per ounce… about twenty-five times the price of gold today!

Revealing water in significant quantities on the Moon could truly be a turning point in space exploration. Who will set up the first water mining plants? Given low-cost availability of water, hydrogen and oxygen, what type of off-Earth economies and exploration will this enable? The question is not too dissimilar to those questions asked when oil was discovered buried deep under the Earth or under the oceans. We eventually designed the technology to mine and extract this precious resource. It’s what we do as humans and entrepreneurs.

I’m excited for all of the teams building vehicles for the Google Lunar X PRIZE. I think of these vehicles as a low-cost ‘prospector’ looking for information and valuable data. Perhaps equivalent to the picks & shovels suppliers for the California Gold Rush. Ultimately, everyone will benefit from low-cost lunar exploration and these Google Lunar Teams will be on the cutting edge of a new gold rush.

Given the success of the Ansari X PRIZE, are other organizations being to emulate the incentive prize model?

The success of the Ansari X PRIZE has proven that incentivized competition stimulates growth in industries that have the potential to benefit the entire world. As noted in a recent McKinsey & Company report, “prizes attract diverse groups of experts, practitioners, and laypeople – regardless of formal credentials – to attempt to solve difficult problems, dramatically expanding the pool of potential solvers and lower the cost of attempting or recognizing solutions.” Further, “prizes highlight and elevate superlative behaviors, ideas, and achievements in order to motivate, guide, and inspire others. Identifying excellence remains the cornerstone of many prizes – the essence of their power to produce change.”

Incentive prizes represent the future of philanthropy and driving breakthroughs. X PRIZEs offer incredible leverage (typically 10 – 40 times the prize purse is spent to win the prize) and efficiency (you only pay the winner).

You get what you incentivize. Incentive prizes work. Today there are now more than a dozen $1M or greater incentive prizes in a wide range of areas. There’s no reason that a decade from now there might be well over one-hundred active multi-million dollar incentive prizes.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Five -- Brian Binnie Makes History

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Five -- Brian Binnie Makes History

One of the biggest concerns people have about space travel is whether or not it is safe. Yet, while I was launching into sub-orbit, the safety risk was the last thing on my mind. I was intimately involved in the rocket motor testing of the program and was comfortable with its capabilities and knew our air-launch approach gave us many more safety options than a ground launch of a conventional rocket. That final SpaceShipOne flight required high performance and fine precision to execute well. Because it demanded my full attention, I was just too busy to be concerned for my safety!

I first learned about the X PRIZE while I was working for Rotary Rocket, testing a rocket that we designed and built, and were in the process of trying to fly. It was not until I joined Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites team, under contract for Paul Allen that I thought it was possible to win the prize. At that point, the X PRIZE was unfunded and had no deadline, and yet, despite this, the prize became our motivator; the carrot that pushed us forward. We had a very small team of 30, which enabled us to be agile and flexible. There were not a lot of approvals that had to happen, so we could sit around a coffee table with our notes and make quick decisions that would be rapidly put into motion. We were confident we had the right technology, but the time frame was a major concern. Rightly so, because the initial competition deadline came and went without us sending SpaceShipOne into space. We needed an extension if we were going to succeed, and fortunately, the Ansaris gave it to us when they extended the competition deadline by a year.

We finally completed the test flights for SpaceShipOne with very little time before the second deadline expired. The rules of the competition stipulated that we had to send the vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice in a two week period. The first flight was manned by my teammate Mike Melville, and while the flight was successful, it had some technical issues that needed to be addressed. The deadline forced us to focus. If there had been no X PRIZE, the technical issues in the first flight could have gotten the better of us, but the clock was ticking, so to speak, and we had the prize in our sights. Safety issues with Mike’s first X PRIZE flight were mostly a public misunderstanding and did not preoccupy us at Scaled. We certainly wanted to avoid a repeat performance of his “roll record” so that the follow-on effort for Virgin Galactic would have a better chance of being realized.

When the day of my flight finally came, I was working with very little sleep. Prior to the release point, I had an excruciating hour in which I had little to do but sit, think, and come face to face with the demons that lurked into my thoughts as I waited. Would things go according to plan? Had SpaceShipOne revealed to us all its secrets? The flight test was under such a microscope that I couldn’t even sneeze – without multiple cameras in the cockpit beaming the images back to the many people watching including the whole Scaled team, the X PRIZE Foundation, Paul Allen, Sir Richard Branson, NASA, and tons of media outlets. Considering that I hadn’t flown the vehicle in some 10 months, I felt I was under a huge amount of pressure. Then, after the hour long wait, things shifted into fast forward and everything happened incredibly quickly. After release, I was under the impressive acceleration of the hybrid rocket and thundering toward space. The shuddering and shaking vibrations combined with the demonic screeching of that motor were most memorable. But, by far, the best part was the contrast provided when I shut off the rocket; Blessed peace and quiet and the instant karma of weightlessness. And then, my God, that view! Separating the black void that is space from the peaceful panorama below is a thin blue electric ribbon of light that is the atmosphere. For 4 minutes I got to soak it all in. I tell you, one cannot be unmoved by the experience! From Mojave, I could see the San Francisco Bay to the North, Baja Mexico to the south, the Sierra-Nevada Mountains and the Pacific. I captured some of the sights with a camera but it’s definitively something you need to see for yourself.

It was almost possible to forget that I was still driving this spaceship and would have the challenge of bringing it back down to earth. Thankfully, due to the brilliance of Burt’s “feather” reentry configuration, that entire phase of flight, normally fraught with danger, was a non-event. There were some moderate G’s to endure and lots of noise as the atmosphere welcomed my supersonic return to Earth, but the ride was otherwise syrupy smooth compared to the rumbling ride under the rocket. About 80 minutes after departure, I returned, landing in front of a most enthusiastic and supportive crowd to claim the $10 million X PRIZE with Scaled’s distinguished and elated team.

I can describe this incredible experience without the slightest fear of ruining it for you. It is not like a movie – it absolutely cannot be spoiled. Reflecting back on it, I am like many Astronauts I know, struck by one compelling thought - I can’t wait to go back.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Four - Anousheh Ansari and Her $10 Million Purse

Launching Commercial Space Travel - Part 4

Anousheh Ansari and Her $10 Million Purse

Ever since I was a young girl in Iran, I have had a deep curiosity and active imagination which peak whenever I look up at the night sky.  I’m fascinated to think about how we got to this place and time, what will come after us and what else is out there.  For many others the dream of space is tied to the thrill of riding a rocket, but if I could blink my eyes and be there, I would do so. To me, rockets are just transportation – the allure is in exploring the universe. 

I have also always had an inner voice which compels me to follow my dream and aspirations.  This voice has been my guide in my journey to the U.S. and in rough road of entrepreneurship to successful business.  Even though my Entrepreneurial aspirations were not directly related to my passion for space, they ultimately provided me the financial means to make space travel a realistic possibility.  And so, having carried the dream of space exploration throughout my life, I was incredibly excited when Peter Diamandis came to visit our family (me, my husband, Hamid, and his brother, Amir, who are also space enthusiasts) to tell us about the X PRIZE. 

As entrepreneurs, we knew the huge amount of work that it would take to make his idea succeed, as well as the many setbacks he would face along the way.  And yet, sitting there listening to him, what was so captivating about Peter was his passion, because in the end, we knew that only passion that strong would keep him going in the face of the tremendous challenges ahead.  Additionally, his vision really resonated with us; we had been looking for possibilities to go to space and perhaps find a way for other like us with a passion for space to be able to do it as well.  While some options existed, they lacked credibility.  The beauty of the X PRIZE was that we didn’t have to decide which company had the greatest probability of building a safe and useable private spaceship, we could support all of the competing teams (and therefore multiple solutions) and we would not have to pay out unless there was a winner.  The investment also offered considerable leverage, as the $10 million prize purse would incentivize multiple teams around the globe to compete, and those teams would find sponsors to invest in their technology (in the end team and sponsorship investment amounted to over $100 million).  So we signed on to sponsor the prize, which then became known as the Ansari X PRIZE.

Throughout the competition, for selfish reason, I hoped with all my heart that someone would win.  I wasn’t sure if it was possible, but I always maintained hope – even when the first deadline passed and the prize remained unclaimed.  As a family of entrepreneurs, we are eternally optimistic, so we decided to extend the deadline by a year.  When I realized the second deadline was drawing near, I still didn’t lose hope.  I had witnessed miracles in the past, and I knew we were on the brink of something really important.

When the prize was at last won (with less than a month until the deadline!), it exceeded all of my expectations.  Witnessing SpaceShipOne hanging in the Air & Space museum really proved that we had made history.  And when we learned that the prize had sparked a new industry and that Sir Richard Branson commercialized the technology…well, that was just the cherry on top. 

Now, as a member of the Board of Trustees and the Vision Circle of the X PRIZE Foundation, I have the opportunity to continue to make history using incentive prizes to drive radical breakthroughs.  Although there are four different areas, including Energy & the Environment, Life Sciences, Exploration, and Education & Global Development, that are being addressed with X PRIZEs, I am a space cadet.  I look forward to the day when the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE is won, and I am committed to developing more space-based prizes which will give us further access to crucial materials and energy necessary to solve some of mankind’s greatest challenges.

Tune in next week for the culmination of the blog series, when Brian Binnie tells about what it felt like to fly in the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE winning flight!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Three - Will Whitehorn and Virgin Galactic Want to Bring You to Space

Launching Commercial Space Travel - Part 3

Will Whitehorn and Virgin Galactic Want to Bring You to Space

The '60s and '70s were space eras. NASA had launched the Apollo program (1963 - 1972), and with that, space exploration was alive. We had accomplished a significant and daring feat with the Apollo 11 moon landing. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey brought the story of space exploration to the big screen. The buzz of space was everywhere and ushered in a new wave of hope and excitement...something we had never before witnessed. People began to dream that, they too, could someday travel into space. But, as time progressed, the dream began to disappear. We saw a string of horrendous accidents - including the 1986 Challenger explosion. Scientists began to make the argument that robots (and not man) should travel to space. Slowly, our hope and promise for space exploration had morphed into a general malaise. I clearly remember the turn of the millennium as a time in which the dream of space seemed to be lost.

And then along came the X PRIZE. The Ansari X PRIZE was launched at a time when space was coming back on the agenda. Satellites, probes and the Hubble Space Telescope were all good stories, and a new generation had forgotten this "man vs. robot" debate. The topic of space exploration had gradually made its way back.

I first learned about X PRIZE in 1997 when Peter Diamandis called Sir Richard (Branson) and me. Now, incentive prizes as drivers of innovation had gone out of fashion since the Second World War. But after talking with Peter, I said to Sir Richard, "This is fascinating. We should seriously be looking at the technology of whoever wins." We debated whether or not it was possible for the prize to be won. In the end, we decided that because technology had changed so much and because prizes were such strong drivers of technological breakthroughs, that it was a possible achievement. The X PRIZE was trailblazing the incentive prize model; even from the word "go" it couldn't be dismissed.

The response to the X PRIZE was global. From Japan to Scotland and from Scandinavia to South Africa, people all around the world were watching and talking about it. Almost every where you went, there was somebody who knew about the Ansari flight. Maybe they didn't know all of the details. Maybe they just knew that there had been a private space flight or that someone had made it to space, but to achieve that kind of global awareness, in a world where there was so much going on, was extremely impressive.

The most exciting thing about all of this was the chance that no winner would be announced by the deadline. It was an enormous risk for Sir Richard to sign the deal with Paul Allen and Burt Rutan (the sponsor and the engineer of the team that won the Ansari X PRIZE). It was this 19th century idea of "if we build it they will come." Yet in 2004, their SpaceShipOne DID win the $10 million prize. And think about how that happened: because Burt came out of the aviation industry and was an aerodynamicist, not a rocket scientist, he was able to develop a practical technological solution that we, as a business, could apply to many other things. That's the success of the prize model.

In 2004-2005, we launched Virgin Galactic using the spaceship we licensed from Paul Allen. We anticipate that approximately 600 people will go to space in the first year that SpaceShipTwo begins space tours. That's essentially the total number of people who have ever gone to space. By our tenth year, we anticipate taking close to eight or nine-thousand people a year. With these numbers, the economies of scale and amortization of costs will dramatically drive down the price, just as it did in aviation, which first began as a luxury very few people could afford. And as we start to add on other businesses, including satellite launches, space science experiments and others, we'll attract venture capital to transform the industry.

So, considering how far we have come since that call in 1997, the Ansari X PRIZE was not only a catalyst for developing the commercial space industry, but also for keeping the dream of space alive.

Please tune in Fridays through October 2 to read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned my "crazy idea" into a reality. Next week you will read about Anousheh Ansari, the first woman to privately go to space, and her $10 million purse. We will conclude the series the following week with the exciting story of Brian Binnie and his prize winning flight of SpaceShipOne.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part Two - Dumitru Popescu Builds His Dream Rocket

To commomorate the 5th anniversary of the winning of the Ansari X PRIZE, every week through October 2, read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned their "crazy ideas" into a reality.

Guest Blogger Dumitru Popescu:

In 2000, I recruited a highly educated and skilled Aerospace team; started a small commercial space organization in a country where that is unprecedented; and dedicated all of my spare time and money to a contest I was sure we would not win. THAT is the power of incentivized competition.

I first heard about the X PRIZE Foundation by pure coincidence. My wife and I were surfing the web in an internet cafe when my search for rocket engines unearthed the Ansari X PRIZE website, which would change my life forever. I learned about the competition to privately launch a rocket into sub-orbit. As someone with a lifelong passion for Aviation and Astronautics, as well as a degree from the Aerospace University in Bucharest, I have always wanted to build civilian rockets, but in Romania this sort of activity is limited to the military. I knew competing in this contest would require a lot of technical expertise. I also knew that securing the funding would be difficult as there are very limited opportunities in the EU for entrepreneurs interested in starting small, commercial space businesses. If we went forward, we would do so with our own wallets.

Despite these hurdles, my wife and I teamed up with University students to create ARCA, a private organization that would eventually build a rocket to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE. From the beginning, my colleagues were skeptical about whether or not we could make ARCA a serious organization, let alone be a serious contender in the X PRIZE competition. Regardless, it was a great opportunity to gain experience and learn about space, so we decided to move forward. My dream to build rockets became a reality.

Early on we did not talk publicly about what we intended to do. We waited until we could leverage the product of our work to increase our credibility. After completing a small pressurized tank, we showed it to various potential sponsors and succeeded in convincing them to donate money and to sponsor our team for a few years. The donations and sponsorship amounts weren't very big, but they enabled us to keep going. After we completed our first rocket, we were ready to share our achievements publicly. The press and our community became excited when they witnessed our engine tests. It was that moment when others began to realize what was possible.

With a half a year remaining in the competition, I attended a meeting with the other teams competing for the Ansari X PRIZE. On that day, I told Burt Rutan, designer of Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne, in the presence of all the competitors, that he would win the competition. This was hard for a lot of people to accept, but I was right. One of my colleagues was in attendance for the first flight of SpaceShipOne, and he carried with him the support of our whole team. We wanted very much for Burt and his team to succeed (my team and I were very concerned when their vehicle began to spin out of control). In the end, Burt and his team claimed the $10 Million Ansari X PRIZE. A lot of teams were disappointed as they found themselves suddenly left without a main objective. We at ARCA decided to keep moving forward.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Diamandis at the X PRIZE Cup. I expressed my hope to him that the X PRIZE would initiate another space-based competition in which ARCA could compete. By the end of 2007, this hope was realized when I learned about the $30 Million Google Lunar X PRIZE. Once again, I said, "Let's go forward with this competition." I had listened, learned and taken the best from the teams in the Ansari X PRIZE and five years later, I am armed with that knowledge and ready for a new competition...a competition with larger ambitions. This time our sights are set on the Moon. And when the time comes for us to launch our space probe to the Moon, I will decorate that probe with a picture that was taken in Los Angeles of myself and the other Ansari space pioneers back in 2004. And after the probe lands on the Moon, I plan to call each one of them to say that, "Your picture is on the Moon and it's looking at you!" Then we will laugh together just as in the days of the Ansari X PRIZE Competition.

 Next week we will hear from Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, the personal space tourism company now licensing the Ansari X PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne design and technology.  Other guest bloggers in this series include Anousheh Ansari, Ansari X PRIZE title sponsor and Brian Binnie, the astronaut who flew in the Ansari X PRIZE winning flight.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Launching Commercial Space Flight: Part One - Dr. Peter H. Diamandis Finds The New Spirit of St. Louis

Many people look at the X PRIZE Foundation and say, "WOW" - what a great idea." What they may not know is how one person's initial concept evolves to that "WOW" stage of achievement. Here's my journey.

I am a space cadet.

Since the age of 6, I've always wanted to go to space. So, I studied medicine - thinking that was my path to orbit, but alas, NASA didn't agree, so I had to find another plan - a plan that led to the founding of the first X PRIZE.

In 1994, to motivate me to complete my pilot's license, my good friend, Gregg Maryniak, gave me Charles Lindbergh's autobiography of his solo flight across the Atlantic. The Spirit of St. Louis told the tale of Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize. I had no idea his motivation was a prize - and suddenly, my path was clear. If it worked for Lindbergh, it would work to incentivize private spaceflight and in the course, my trip to space. My first hurdle was to find the seed money to get the idea off the ground. The active space communities seemed a natural fit, but my friend, Doug King, the newly installed President of the St. Louis Science Center, proposed that St. Louis would be the ideal place to launch the X PRIZE. The synergies were obvious: it was where Charles Lindbergh raised the seed money to build his prize-winning aircraft nearly 75 years earlier; it was home of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation which had built the Mercury and Gemini Capsules; and St. Louis is historically known as the Gateway for early exploration of the West.

I had my first meeting with Al Kerth, head of the St. Louis community's Civic Progress Organization, the man whom I was told was "the guy you have to convince in St. Louis." I will never forget the moment, when halfway through my impassioned pitch about my X PRIZE vision, Al got up out of his chair and said "I get it! I get it! This is huge! We need to do this in St. Louis!"

Over scotch that evening, Al told me about his own vision for the X PRIZE - to find 100 St. Louisans to each pledge $25,000 (the size of the Orteig Prize that Lindbergh won) to form the NEW Spirit of St. Louis. Together, Al and I met one-on-one with incredible people ... folks like spirited explorers Lotsie Holton and Doug King; civic leaders such as Dick Fleming, Walter Metcalfe and Hugh Scott; corporate giants like John McDonnell and Andy Taylor; and entrepreneurs like Bill Maritz and Marc Arnold. Through their generous contributions, the X PRIZE now had the opportunity to revive the pioneering legacy of Lindbergh and the original Spirit of St. Louis and to find the Lindbergh of our generation.

On May 18, 1996, underneath the St. Louis Gateway Arch, and on stage with NASA Administrators, FAA Associate Administrators, Buzz Aldrin, Byron Lichtenberg, Owen Garriott and 17 other astronauts, along with members of the Lindbergh family (including X PRIZE Trustee Erik Lindbergh), we announced the $10 Million X PRIZE for the first private team to fly two consecutive flights to the edge of space within two weeks. With more than 50 media outlets recording this incredible event, I was convinced that the hardest part was behind me and that we would rapidly find a purse sponsor. With the support of NASA, the FAA and some of the biggest names in the Space industry, who wouldn't want to get involved? Especially since they would only have to pay if the prize was won! The harsh reality, though, was that every CEO said the same three things: "Can anyone really do this?" "Isn't someone going to die trying?" and "Why isn't NASA doing this?" It was a long struggle with a few high points, like when Tom Clancy spontaneously donated $100,000 during our 1997 gala. But the $10 Million title sponsor, our holy grail, still evaded us.

That was, of course, until a magical moment in 2001 when I met the Ansari family, who immediately saw the vision and signed on as the title sponsor of what we would historically rename the "Ansari X PRIZE." Five years after we announced the competition, I could finally take a deep breath and enjoy the fact that the purse money was secured. But then the real challenge began - making sure there would be a winner...

Please tune in next week and every Friday through October 2, to read the inspirational stories of the visionaries and heroes who turned my "crazy idea" into a reality. Next week we will hear from the Romanian team who overcame significant hurdles to compete for the Ansari X PRIZE, and is now set on winning the Google Lunar X PRIZE. Other guest bloggers in this series include Anousheh Ansari, Ansari X PRIZE title sponsor; Brian Binnie, the astronaut who flew in the Ansari X PRIZE winning flight; Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator; and Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic, the personal space tourism company now licensing the Ansari X PRIZE winning SpaceShipOne design and technology.

SpaceShipOne - Ansari X PRIZE winner

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The McKinsey & Company Report, “And the winner is…” Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes was released March 3, 2009. The Report concluded that incentive prizes are a unique and powerful tool that should be in the basic toolkit of many of today’s philanthropists. The recent renaissance of prizes is largely due to a new appreciation for the multiple ways in which they can produce change: not only by identifying new levels of excellence and by encouraging specific innovations, but also by changing wider perceptions, improving the performance of communities of problem-solvers, building the skills of individuals, and mobilizing new talent or capital. If you'd like to read the complete report it can be downloaded here.

I recently had an in-depth interview with Paul Jansen of McKinsey & Company on the origins of X PRIZE and discussed my passion and understanding of how incentive prizes work.  Thought you might like to hear it...


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

This week marks the launch of a new University.  It’s rare to launch a new University these days, so I’m very honored and pleased to have given birth to Singularity University ( along with fellow X PRIZE Trustee Ray Kurzweil.  Singularity University (or “SU”) is located on the campus of NASA Ames/Moffett Field.  It has been founded with the support of Corporate Founders of Google and ePlanet Ventures, as well as a dozen Associate Founders (Moses Znaimer, Keith Kleiner, Barney Pell, Klee Irwin, Sonia Arrison, Dan Stoicescu, Georges Harik, Reese Jones, David S. Rose, Sabiha Malik Foster, Peter L. Bloom, Geoffrey Shmigelsky).

SU has just completed the first of 9 weeks of the Graduate Student Program (GSP’09) and I’m extremely pleased and proud of what we have created.  It is real, off and running, and here to stay.

From the Student perspective, we have pulled together an incredible group of brilliant and dedicated graduate students who are all entrepreneurs, driven and passionate about taking on the world’s grand challenges (this year’s class is 40 in size from 13 nations, the program will expand to 120 graduate students next year).  When we selected our students based upon the criteria of academic excellence, demonstrated entrepreneurship and big-picture thinking, we did not know we’d be attracting fun, high-spirited and good natured individuals as well.  I’m pleased the traits matched-up!

Equally rewarding is the Faculty from 10 different disciplines including a half-dozen exponentially growing fields.  Going from a lecture by Vint Cerf on the internet’s origin, to Ralph Merkle on the basics of nanotech, to a lecture by Astronaut Dan Barry on high-risk scenarios in space exploration all in the span of 4 hours is an intellectual feast.  Having Trustees Bob Richards, and Michael Simpson present for the opening week, as well as my co-Founder Ray Kurzweil was fantastic.  We all greatly enjoyed the screening of Transcendent Man -- a truly beautiful film.

Our home at NASA Ames, courtesy of Dr. Pete Worden and NASA HQ is tremendous.  The facilities are excellent and the setting could not be better.  As Pete said in the opening ceremony… Welcome to Starfleet Academy!

SU runs 24x7, and the nickname “sleepless university” has its merits… hopefully things will settle down shortly.  As the first week of ‘getting to know each other’ and ‘introductory lectures’ is behind us, the real work of focusing on the curriculum and figuring out how to bring life to the “10 to the 9th plus” design project (10^9+) is our next challenge.  How can all of the students, staff and faculty work together to design technologies, systems or programs that can positively affect 1 billion people within a decade?

As I mentioned in my opening remarks, SU is special in what and how it teaches.  Homo Sapiens have evolved as a species to think “locally” and “linearly” and SU is focused on teaching how to think “globally” and “exponentially.”  This is not an institution which seeks to compete with the MITs, Stanfords, or Oxfords of the world, but rather has been founded to complement those existing programs in a meaningful and unique fashion.  Most importantly to build a cadre of future leaders who are connected and empowered to take on humanity’s grand challenges in a significant fashion.

It is my fervent hope that the Graduates of SU will be the leadership that pursues X PRIZEs in the decades ahead.

For those of you not able to participate in SU this summer, there will be two options for you going forward (   Consider applying for the GSP-2010 program which will take place in late June through August 2010.  Next year we will be accepting ~120 students into the program.  ALSO, for the Executives interested in SU, we will be launching our 3-Day and 10-Day Executive Programs starting this November 2009.  They are limited in size so please let us know of your interest ASAP.

I’d like to close by saying thank you to our super-star staff and teaching fellows who are working 48x7 to make this program happen.  Special thanks to Susan Fonseca-Klein, Bruce Klein, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom and our Executive Director, Salim Ismail for all that you are doing.

Best personal regards,

Peter H. Diamandis

Chairman & CEO, X PRIZE Foundation

Vice-Chancellor & co-Founder, Singularity University

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rev up Your Company’s Innovation Engine with Candor

By Keith Ferrazzi

I spoke at the X PRIZE Foundation’s incentive2innovate (i2i) Conference last month in NY. But when it was my turn at the podium, my take was that a conference about collaboration and innovation shouldn’t be dominated by one way communication – so as usual, I got the audience interacting with each other. Also as usual, my emphasis was on the need to be CANDID.

When candid exchanges between people collide, the fusion generates entirely new insights, new ideas, and new approaches—what we collectively call innovation, where value is created—that might never have been considered independently. Candor gives us the ability to take risks, preparing us to solve problems collaboratively—both at work and in our personal lives—with better results than we would ever have achieved alone.

So the question is, how do we create a culture of candor in our workplaces? For one, we need the core mindsets of Generosity and Vulnerability to create what I call a “safe place” where we can trust each other to be honest.
But also, whether or not you’re officially a leader in your workplace, you can create a tremendous impact on its culture just by showing others the value of inviting in candor. With that in mind, here are some specific tips for drumming up some candid feedback in your life and work.

1. Find People You Respect
We can’t be candid with everybody—nor would we want to be. Which is why we should each find or create a workplace where we're surrounded by people whom we respect. What do I mean by respect? It comes down to acknowledging another person’s uniqueness, value, perspective, and wisdom. If you don’t respect someone, believe me, they’ll sense it, and it will be impossible to establish a safe place between the two of you.

2. Create the Opportunity

To open up a dialogue with another person and ask for his candid feedback, you might need to tee things up in advance of a meeting with an e-mail, so your friend or coworker has time to ponder what he might say beforehand. Here’s an example: “Jim—I was hoping you would do me a favor. You know I’m gunning for that promotion. Frankly, I could use all the advice I can get. I really respect your opinion. You see me every day—would you be willing sometime to give me a half-hour of candid feedback about what I do well, and what I am less strong on, from your perspective?”

3. Make It Clear Any Feedback You Get Is a Gift

Express your gratitude when you receive feedback. What you’re asking for is a gift—of time, honesty, and thoughtful feedback.

4. Acknowledge Your Faults

Don’t try to pretend to be something you’re not. Most of us know, deep inside, what’s holding us back. By acknowledging that you have things to work on, you make it much easier for others to be honest with you. You might begin: “Listen, I know I’ve got plenty of stuff to work on, but I hoped you might be able to point out a few things in particular that I could focus on.” By acknowledging up front that you’re imperfect (who isn’t?), you pave the way for another person to be honest with you.

5. Tell the Other Person What You  Plan to Do with the Advice

You’re not asking for advice to put the other person on the spot, or to “test” her. You’re certainly not going to get angry or defensive. Make clear that you’re simply gathering information and you'd like his or her honest opinion.

6. Don’t Tell Them What You Want to Hear

My advice is to begin generally and wait for the other person to make the first move by coming up with something specific. If she hems, haws, and otherwise resists giving you targeted feedback, say something like, “Really—I mean it. I would be deeply appreciative.” Then pause. A pause is a very effective way to encourage others to respond—most people will do anything to avoid an awkward or embarrassing silence. Be sure you don’t start by leading the witness—by identifying your faults and asking the other person to confirm them. You’re after candor here, not an echo effect.

7. Ask Specific Questions

Once the other person has given feedback, it’s okay to bring up specific examples about yourself that you want to get reactions to. For example, you may say, “I think I may come across too strong. What do you think? Do you recall any specific examples?”

8. Take It or Leave It—but Deliver on Safety

Remember that asking for criticism doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Criticism is what it is: candid feedback from someone you respect and whose opinion matters to you. Ultimately, you decide how or whether you use or act on that feedback. When I disagree with someone’s perspective, I simply say, “Thank you,” or “I appreciate hearing that.” If I’m confused, I’ll ask for clarification—before thanking the person once again!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Calling all interns... X PRIZE has open positions!

Intern (in-tern) noun - a person who works as an apprentice or trainee in an occupation or profession to gain practical experience.

Have we got a job for you.

What if you could work side-by-side with the CEO of an internationally recognized non-profit organization that is making positive changes for the world?

Well, you just may have your opportunity.

The X PRIZE Foundation is currently looking for a few smart, talented individuals to fill three, 10-week internship positions at the Foundation's headquarters in Playa Vista California.

The opportunities exist in the Office of the CEO, in our Alliances Department and in Prize Development.

Want more details? Click here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Everybody Deserves a Roof – “Thinking Outside of the Box”

Everybody Deserves a Roof – “Thinking Outside of the Box”

There are more than 73,000 homeless people on any given night in Los Angeles County; more than half of them are in the City of Los Angeles. Peter Samuelson, a media executive who founded three major children’s philanthropies: the Starlight Children’s Foundation, the Starbright Foundation and First Star, began to notice the high number of homeless women, men and children during his bike rides between his home in Westwood, Los Angeles to Santa Monica Beach. Having lost count after 62 homeless people, Peter set out on a mission to conceptualize and build a mobile shelter – later named EDAR – to help improve the quality of life for those living in the streets.

The idea for EDAR, which stands for Everybody Deserves a Roof, was born after Peter interviewed 62 of the individuals he witnessed living in the streets who shared their desire for a shelter that could be mobile, safe, durable, elevated off the concrete and could facilitate recycling - a principal source of income for many homeless individuals. Once he understood his challenges, he set out to create the design.
For the design, Peter turned to the students of the Pasadena Art Center College of Design who were most eager for the opportunity to share their creative design ideas with the world. There, Peter launched a design competition – modeled after The X PRIZE Foundation’s successful model for incentive prize competitions. Peter is a long-time friend of the Foundation who has witnessed the world-changing innovations that have resulted from The X PRIZE Foundation’s incentivized prizes, including the Ansari X PRIZE for Suborbital Spaceflight and the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE. As a result of his Pasadena Art Center College of Design challenge, Peter met designers Eric Lindeman and Jason Zasa whose winning design was used to produce the first EDAR – an innovative, purpose-specific four-wheeled device that today provides shelter to hundreds of homeless individuals in Los Angeles.

During the day, EDAR's are used to pursue the necessities of life. Personal belongings are stored and secured in storage baskets with removable canvas pouches. At night, the waterproof, windproof and flame-retardant unit hinges down into a sleeping unit with a metal and wood base, mattress and military-grade canvas cover that provides a robust tent-like shelter. It also features translucent windows that provide light and views of the surrounding area.

EDAR’s are given free of charge to homeless individuals who are best able to benefit from their recycling and shelter capabilities. EDAR units also provide a sense of ownership and pride to those largely deprived of both. And as Peter Samuelson asks, "Well into the twenty-first century, if the best our advanced society can do for the hundreds of thousands of homeless human beings... men, women and children... who live among us is the cast-off box our refrigerator came in,what exactly does that say about us?"

For more information, to make a donation or to volunteer, please visit

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Profile highlight: Ken Behring and the Wheelchair Foundation

I had the good fortune of meeting Ken Behring once a few years ago. He was on a wheelchair donation program in Bali, and I happened to be there on assignment separately when I ran into him. I had no idea who he was, and probably it was good that way. I tend to be afraid of people with money or fame, tending to run in the opposite direction.

Behring was a kindly, elderly American gentleman I ran into while eating dinner at a local Balinese restaurant. We were being hosted by the same individual, and over dinner he told me that he was in town to "give away wheelchairs to a handicapped center in the area." Our conversations over the next day largely centered around the lessons he had learned in his life. It was only several days after our encounter that I realized how much wealth he really had, and I was moved by his story.

Behring's story is the classic American rags-to-riches tale. He grew up dirt poor in the mid-west, and worked his way up. With a high school diploma and a whole lot of motivation, he started a few companies, built a few cities, and owned the Seattle Seahawks, among other things. But it was during a chance trip to eastern Europe that he found his real purpose in life. He had agreed to drop off a shipment of wheelchairs on his private airplane enroute to a business destination. He was struck by the plight of the disabled in the developing world and promptly started the Wheelchair Foundation. The rest is history. When we met, he told me that he had entered the most important phase of his life...the earlier parts of his life when he had made his wealth were prologue to his "real life." He now works to build better quality wheelchairs, and to date has donated approximately 750,000 wheelchairs.

You can read more about Behring in his touching autobiography: Road to Purpose

Monday, January 12, 2009

Models for the Physically Handicapped: Emmanuel's Gift

In another documentary, watch Emmanuel's Gift, the story of a orphaned, disabled Ghanaian who rode across Africa on his bicycle bringing a message of hope and changing perceptions about physical handicaps. You can see the trailer here and below:

From the World Bank profile on him:

Emmanuel was born in Ghana, with a deformed right leg and meager expectations. Abandoned by his father and shunned by his community, his path was pre-determined—become a beggar and/or rely on others for survival. But Emmanuel chose a different road. He would not sacrifice his dignity and be forced to the streets like others in his situation.

At the age of 13, he took matters into his own hands and started a shoeshine business, earning $2 a day. Building on the pride he felt in his work and accomplishment, Emmanuel set out to show the nation of Ghana that physically challenged individuals can actively shape their destiny—not just meekly accept it.

After receiving a bike from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, using his left leg only, Emmanuel pedaled 610 kilometers (almost 380 miles) across Ghana. He was determined to spread his message: disability does not mean inability. Impressed by Emmanuel’s thirst for equality and his hunger for change, CAF flew him to the 2002 San Diego Triathlon Challenge to participate in the 56-mile bike portion of the event. There he met world-class athletes like Rudy Garcia-Tolson, Paul Martin and others, who accomplish tremendous feats with the aide of high-tech prosthetics. CAF and a key partner, Loma Linda University Rehabilitation Institute, wondered if such a prosthetic might be the answer for Emmanuel, too.

Even after a week’s stay at the world-renowned rehab facility, Emmanuel was still having doubts about the surgery. In Ghana, such an operation could prove to be fatal. After sharing his fears with Rudy, who had both legs amputated above the knee at age five, he made up his mind. Emmanuel would undergo surgical amputation of his right leg above the knee, and receive a new prosthesis from Loma Linda. He would stand for the first time on two feet.

Today, Emmanuel can run, ride a bike using both legs, and wear trousers. He stands proudly, supported by his inner tenacity and strength of character—rather than the crutches upon which he once relied. After winning the prestigious Casey Martin Award from Nike, he decided to apply his $25,000 grant—matched by CAF—toward continuing to change attitudes and lives in his homeland, where one of 10 citizens is disabled. CAF’s Emmanuel Fund provides education and sports equipment, and ultimately, Emmanuel hopes to build a sports center for physically challenged people of Ghana.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Links I liked

1. Its true...coke can clean your toilet (I just tried!). You can learn how here.

2. Hard to believe, but there are good leaders in Africa. Chris Blattman sheds some light on the subject.

3. Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin suggests a movie out of Israel that is surprisingly relevant and poignant to the current issues.

4. If you are the reading type, Small Business Trends gives a list of the best Business books as voted by the public.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Models for the Physically Handicapped: Murderball

If you want an eye opening look at disabilities, sport, and competition, watch Murderball, a documentary that follows the US Quad Rugby Team. Uplifting, inspiring, and eye-opening, it is an excellent shot of hope in the arm... see the trailer here and below:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Models for the Physically Handicapped: Paralympic Athletes

The physically handicapped need role models. This is why I love the Paralympics and the Special Olympics. Not to put them in the same category in any way as they are very different events and competitors, but they do have their similarities in that they bring together physically and mentally handicapped people from around the world to compete in the spirit of sportsmanship. The lessons from these games are true testament to the strength of the human spirit.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has done a phenomenal job of capturing these moments and sharing them with the world. They have their own youtube channel, which I would highly recommend watching. Below is one of their highlight reels.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Technology for the physically handicapped: Hugh Herr

I have seen and met Hugh Herr. I had first seen him on an episode of Scientific American Frontiers where he was showing some of the technologies he had developed for the physically challenged. When I first met him, I was struck by his intelligence and soft spoken manner. I never looked at his gait. I had no reason to. When I was asked to, I wondered why. There was nothing particularly extraordinary about it. He had a slight swagger but nothing that stood out. Later I learned that he was a double-amputee, and was testing out biomechanic prosthetics on himself.

Herr is a professor at the MIT Media Lab, where he heads a biomechantronics (biology, mechanical engineering and electronics) group designing prosthetics for the handicapped. Earlier this year, his research helped truly level the playing field for an Olympic athlete. For the first time this year, an athlete with an artificial foot was able to compete in a track event alongside able-bodied athletes. Read the story here.

More about Herr and his inventions:
The Courage to Give (Profile of Herr)
New Horizons in Orthotics and Prosthetics: Merging Bodies and Machines (webcast)
Webcast presentation by Herr about his research
The World's First Powered Ankle Technology Review
A Question of Mind over Matter Wired