To the Editor

Can incentive prize competitions stimulate breakthroughs in basic and applied science? How effective are prize competitions, and in which domains of research and technology development? XPRIZE Foundation has been exploring these questions in a practical sense for over two decades. Though XPRIZE is an independent not-for-profit, its success at supporting science and technology communities has attracted growing attention from national government agencies, independent charities, and science oriented foundations. The incentive prize model, in which only successful demonstration of a performance target is rewarded, is gaining traction in these quarters. This may be, at least in part, a response to the advancing era of transparency and accountability in research, grant-making, and government generally. Recently-announced XPRIZE competitions present opportunities for the physics and physical science communities in particular.

The incentive prize model (sometimes called inducement prize model) is not new. It’s use in catalyzing solutions to wicked problems goes at least as far back as the famous longitude prize offered in 18th century Britain for a method of deducing a ship’s longitude at sea. Other well-known instances include the Orteig Prize for the first non-stop flight between Paris and New York (won by Charles Lindburgh in 1927, and inspiration for the creation of XPRIZE in 1995), and the Sikorsky Prize for human-powered helicopter flight, framed in 1980 and claimed by Aerovelo in 2012. The range and history of prizes raises natural questions in today’s research context about which problems are best suited to be solved or having solutions advanced by a prize competition.

XPRIZE designs and operates prize competitions to tackle well known wicked problems in four domains: learning, healthcare, (space) exploration, and energy and environment. By way of example, the ongoing Google Lunar XPRIZE, a $30 million to land a lunar rover on the moon, and the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE for rapid, hand-held medical diagnostics, have benefitted from strong participation from physical scientists and engineers keen to answer fundamental questions, push experimental performance, and develop integrated hardware for research and technology development.

Two recently-announced competitions provide a particular opportunity for the physics community. The first is the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a $20 million competition for conversion of post-combustion CO2 into higher value materials and products. Mitigation, capture, and use of industrial carbon emissions may already be familiar to your readers in light of the APS Panel on Public Affairs 2011 report on direct air capture of CO2. The second is the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, a $7 million competition to demonstrate autonomous mapping of the ocean floor to spatial resolutions orders of magnitude beyond what has been achieved to date. Both competitions are accepting submissions from any interested team until July 2016 and September 2016, respectively.

The research literature on the efficacy and value of prize competitions is rich and growing. But beyond an award for best performance, or a solution search to a specific problem, the prize competition format at its best can drive inspiration, attract creative talent into a problem space, and showcase the personal and professional journeys of the scientists and engineers focused on finding solutions. It’s fair to say that the physics community is not known for its storytelling. That may be changing somewhat, with recent productions such as Intersellar, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Particle Fever, and even the recent gravity waves announcement from LIGO, each tackling the physics storytelling challenge head-on. Still, the excitement and challenge of a prize competition may hold tremendous potential to help physicists tell their stories, and to lionizing the work of some our most creative contemporary minds.

Marcius Extavour
Director of Technical Operations, Energy & Environment, XPRIZE

References on use and efficacy of prizes:

[1] L. Kay, Opportunities and Challenges in the Use of Innovation Prizes as a Government Policy Instrument, Minerva 50:191–196, 2012.

[2] L. Jeppesen, K. Lakhani, Marginality and Problem-Solving Effectiveness in Broadcast Search, Organization Science, Vol. 21, No. 5, September–October 2010, pp. 1016–1033

[3] S. Magnuson, More Government Agencies Using Challenge Prizes to Tackle Tough Technology Problems, National Defense, January 2015, p.28

[4] T. Kalil, Prizes for Technological Innovation, Brookings Institution discussion paper, 2006.

[5] And the winner is… Capturing the promise of phialthropic prizes, McKinsey & Company, 2009.

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.