XPrize: $10 Million to Fight Global Poverty

Posted by sharakarasic on Nov 01, 2008

On day three of MobileActive ’08, I attended a session led by Pragnya Alekal of the XPrize Foundation. Pragnya is a water sanitation and energy engineer who has spent a lot of time in the field. She stressed that technology has its limitations – it’s not the whole solution. Her entire goal has been to make up for the fact that technology is important while encompassing other factors.

Alekal told us that XPrize’s goal is to revolutionize sectors – they have a commons-based philosophy. Pragnya was at MobileActive ‘08 to get ideas. How do you solve poverty? How do you get more people to think of solutions?

Alekal told us the history of XPrize, which started with a big dream and got scaled out. It was founded by Peter Diamandes – from the age of nine on, he wanted to go to space. He became a rocket scientist and got six degrees. He felt that the astronaut program was too restrictive. If you are non-American like he is, your chances of becoming an astronaut are low. The number of people who make it into space is very small.

So Diamandes wanted to figure out a different way to go into space. He had read about Lindbergh’s historic journey across the Atlantic. There was a prize to cross the Atlantic - that’s why Lindbergh did it. Because of the prize, many people innovated to make aircraft that would go across the Atlantic. Everyone who people thought would succeed failed. No one expected a scrawny 25-yr-old to make it. A year after Lindbergh’s flight, commercial flying became possible and now is common.

“What if we applied the same idea for space?” thought Diamandes.

So he launched the first XPrize to build a spaceship. There was an eight-year timeline and ten million dollar prize. People were skeptical, but 26 teams invested 100 million. Total and Virgin ending up buying the technology. Next year, private space travel will be possible for $200,000.

There has been a new XPrize every year since 2004. Next year there will be a lunar prize that Google is sponsoring, as well as a prize for whomever builds a 100-mpg car.

Now we XPrize wants to address poverty by May 2009, according to Alekal. Attributes of the prize include $10 million for the winner, and a 3-8 year timeline. XPrize is looking for an objective and measurable solution to a defined problem. They are focusing on challenging paradigms of stuck sectors, and radical breakthroughs, not incremental. Their goal is to reward risk-taking and collaborative, interdisciplinary endeavors. They would be happy to launch or formalize an innovative sector – for example, mobile applications. They would like to create hope and celebrate mavericks and heroes.

Areas of focus include waste management, IT and wireless, public health, agriculture, transport, and finance and banking. South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and India are the focus. Alekal concluded, “Global problems need global ideas.”

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