Thursday, March 14, 2013

Changing the world one prize at a time

Contests for big breakthroughs are opportunities for interventions that don't result in as many unintended consequences or opportunities for graft - we need more of them (WSJ):

New York hotelier Raymond Orteig liked to drink at his bar with French pilots during World War I. In 1919, Orteig announced a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop New York-to-Paris flight. Pilots worked with gung-ho young airline companies to design planes for the task. The Bellanca was tipped to win, but a mail pilot named Charles Lindbergh worked with Ryan Airlines of San Diego on a single-pilot, single-engine plane named the Spirit of St. Louis. He got the job done in 33½ hours.

In more recent times? Well, in 1990, the unlikely duo of the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health launched a 15-year Human Genome Project to identify the 30,000 genes that make up the human DNA. Craig Venter launched his own unofficial competition with the project and succeeded in sequencing his own genes in 13 years. His prize: patents for his company, Celera Genomics, and a jump-start on business with drug makers.

The U.S. government runs some contests today, for example at, but the prize money is small potatoes—$20,000-$80,000 for things like "design a mobile application to help people 'Live Well. Learn How.' "

No, no. Real contests have to be about BHA—Big, Hairy, Audacious goals. Fortunately, the private sector has taken over. The X-Prize Foundation runs a series of contests, the most famous being the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, which saw 26 teams spend a total of more than $100 million attempting to fly three people 100 kilometers (62 miles) into space twice within two weeks. [...]

If they really want to have an impact on society—beyond the societal wealth already created by Google and Facebook—offer a billion-dollar BrinZuck prize to prevent or stop Alzheimer's, or to regenerate spinal cords and organs, or to cure obesity. Instead of small-ball academic researchers vying for grants from the National Institutes of Health, you'd get entrepreneurs coming out of the woodwork trying innovative approaches to win a $1 billion jackpot. Or maybe the challenge could be to create personal jet packs. Or neuron downloads. Whatever—but something BHA.

Thankfully, there already is a series of contests with $1 billion-plus prizes. Some great (and not so great) companies are funded with the prize of billion-dollar valuations in the public markets. It's called the IPO market and entrepreneurs pull all-nighters writing clever code while wearing dark sunglasses with the brightness on their monitors turned up.

Yet even in that realm, much of what we see is incremental. The Big Hairy Audacious stuff still needs and deserves a breakthrough contest.

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