When the prize is big enough things get done in an amazingly short period of time. So it has been for a long time. The Raymond Ortega Prize of $25000 for the first flight across the Atlantic spurred Charles Lindberg to fly the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic in 1927. A prize for the first balloon to circumnavigate the globe was awarded in 1999 to Bertrand Piccard and Bryan Jones . Anheuser-Busch Company offered a trophy and a one million dollar prize (one half of which was to be donated to charity) to the winning team. The phrase “Keep your eye on the prize” is more meaningful than ever in our day of an shrinking resource base and profound problems with the climate on our planet.
Prizes of this type had been a part of the inventors landscape for hundreds of years. The early one that comes to mind is the Longitude Prize offer up by the British government in 1714 for the creation of a devise that would measure longitude precisely. This prize was administered by the Board of Longitude. Because the board could not come to agreement on the requirements, the prize was never awarded. The results of offering this prize was the chronometer, invented by John Harrison. In an age when the position of the moon and stars was the only way to navigate our oceans, such a devise was of great benefit to exploration and commerce. Harrison did receive over 14,000 pounds as seed money to do his research and was later given a gift by Parliament in gratitude for his work. But the glory of receiving the prize was withheld from him. A book by Dava Sobel called “Longitude” recounts Harrison life.
And the X Prize is the next generation of the GRAND PRIZE. One of these prizes is waiting out there for the person that can invent a car that goes 100 on one mile of gas, is clean efficient and marketable. Progressive Automobile Insurance has teamed up with the X Prize Foundation to offer $10,000,000 to the team that creates such a car and to this date 60 teams from around the world have signed up to compete. One such car is produced by Aptera Motors and is on the market today at somewhere around $30,000. In fact you can reserve one at their web site for $500.
The X Prize Foundation’s mission statement says simply that they want “To bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity”. The foundation is supported through contributions from individuals and partnerships with businesses like Google and Progressive Automobile Insurance. One of the goal of the foundation is to see that the business of making money works for the improvements that benefit mankind.
Today there are other prizes that give prizes and are sought after. While there are monetary benefits, the prestige of winning say a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer Prize is well known and a person that received such a prize is honored for all of their life. Such prizes are truly the nudge that humankind seems to need the make it worth the time and effort it takes to create something as wonderful as say penicillin or the vaccine against polio. The Nobel Prize can be for $1,000,000 and the Pulitzer Prize winner receives a medal and a check for $10,000.
In a article written in Fortune Magazine , X Prize Foundation member Larry Page talked about the need for new disciplines to take on today’s challenges. Page is on of the founders of Google. Google was instrumental in setting up the Lunar X Prize. According to the X Prize web site “The Google Lunar X PRIZE is a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth. “
Page talked about how little time, money and effort companies spend on innovation. Google, for example, spends less than 10% of their money on innovation yet that is where the big money is generated in the end. He saw it as a interdisciplinary problem and said that students coming out of college did not have the broad knowledge they needed to bring all the disciplines to bear on a problem. As an example he talked about exploration for alternate power sources. His take was that the people that make a difference are those that have a general understanding of problems and good salesmanship qualities. An invention does nobody any good if the inventor can’t convince someone to use it.
Others have wondered where all those inventions went in years gone by…the ones that held promise but went against commonly held knowledge and were not immediately profitable for companies. The ones that were invented by people with good lab skills but no people skill. The ones that were not prize worthy. It could be that there was nothing to them or even that the very people that saw a threat to their profits bought the rights to the inventions and then filed them away.
If all those prizes out there are awarded to men and woman, it could be that mankind will find a way to survive on this earth. The Progressive Automobile Insurance X Prize has greased the wheel to produce a car that will help. Page intimated that the power industries could team up to create a prize for an energy source that will power the world without coal, nuclear power or dams and we could see benefits and profits for these companies beyond our wildest dream. BP and Shell talk a great deal about wind power as an alternate fuel source. Both companies are at the present time investing in this resource thinking that it will reduce green house emissions. Page talked about looking to the core of the earth or the sun. The possibilities are there it seems.
When asked why companies and individuals were not more innovative risk takers, Page pointed out that fear of failure was a huge stumbling block for many with great ideas. Even the start up of Google was a giant leap of faith on the founders part. But he pointed out even when such things fail, there are always spin off ideas that are of benefit to humankind. When John F. Nash, Jr. and John von Neumann worked on the game theory, all of the implication of “zero sum” was probably not apparent to them. Economics and the negotiation of contracts are now using concepts put forth in the theory regularly. Both of these men sought prizes in their fields and John Nash was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1994 for economics.
So whether it be a 100+ miles per gallon vehicle or a race to the moon with robots, prizes are the fuel needed to get things done. When business and creativity collaborate, there might be no limit to what man can accomplish. They are keeping their eye on the prize!