Saturday, February 10, 2007

Virgin Earth Challenge

Sir Richard Branson has announced The Virgin Earth Challenge for a practical design that can remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. A number of sources have reported on this prize, including MSNBC (here too), Bloomberg Europe, and RLV News. Check out the Virgin Earth web site, too. The press release at the site discusses the history of technology innovation prizes in general, and also mentions the X PRIZE and how that enabled Virgin Galactic. Al Gore is also part of the prize announcement and effort. The prize pool is $25 Million, with 20% awarded initially and the rest potentially awarded after a 10 year evaluation period during which the design would be in actual use. The award may be shared among multiple winning designs. A lot more detail is available at the Virgin Earth web site, including at the News and Press Releases link and the Terms and Conditions link at the bottom of that page.

When thinking about this and other recent innovation prizes, it occurs to me that there are opportunities for collaboration with these prizes, as NASA Centennial Challenges show. One example could be collaboration between Virgin Earth prize and the X PRIZE Foundation, although I think the same general idea could be applicable to all sorts of prizes, like the Planetary Society Apophis asteroid mission design contest, the Grainger Challenge, the Mars Society Mars Rover competition, and many others. In the Virgin Earth press release, Branson welcomes governments and other organizations to contribute to the prize pot to make the incentive even greater. This makes sense because they surely would want to increase the incentive for the main prize while having a second and third place design to back up the first.

As an example, let's assume the Virgin Earth Challenge and the X PRIZE Foundation goals are compatible. In that case with collaboration the Virgin Earth Challenge could gain the legitimacy and public name recognition of the X PRIZE Foundation for their prize. In the area of innovation prizes, they have a lot of credibility. Publicity is important for many prizes in attracting donations to the prize, informing potential contestants about the prize, and increasing the prestige of the winner. They could also gain the expertise of the X PRIZE team, which has people who are in the business of the management, publicity, and legality of innovation prizes. They would also be able to tap into the built-in donation process the X PRIZE team already has. They could benefit from the celebrity efforts at events like the upcoming X PRIZE announcement at Google headquarters. Finally, they could design their challenge so the contestants could compete, or at least make demonstrations or display exhibit booths, at the X PRIZE Cup. This event could be a media and funding draw for them, as well as giving them an opportunity to educate the public about the problem they are interested in. All of this, I suspect, could be worked out in such a way that the Virgin Group could also benefit from the publicity and keep its name on the prize.

The X PRIZE Foundation would also benefit. It would have another prize to work on. Innovation prizes to solve important problems are, after all, its main reason for being. It would benefit from the publicity of the prize and working with Virgin Earth. It might be able to attract donations for its other prizes by awareness gained as a byproduct of working with the Virgin Earth Challenge. Finally, having exhibits, demonstrations, or contests related to this prize at the X PRIZE Cup would enhance that event and possibly expose a different audience to some of their other concerns like space challenges.

At any rate, congradulations to all those involved for keeping the promising prize mechanism in the spotlight, as well as for the incentives and efforts to solve the actual problems.