#69: Science Sets Its Eyes on the Prize

Big money awaits innovators who can build rockets, sequence genomes, predict people's movie preferences, harvest energy from the tides, or explore the Moon.

By Darlene Cavalier|Friday, December 25, 2009

A growing number of organizations are taking a cue from reality TV, offering prize money for successful solutions to science and technology problems.

Three major prizes are currently up for grabs from the X Prize Foundation, which aims to spur innovation. The $10 million Archon X Prize will reward any group or person who can sequence the human genome in 10 days or less for no more than $10,000 per genome. So far, eight teams have registered. The $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize, recognizing high-efficiency, commercially viable vehicles, completed two rounds of judging this past year. Performance tests will start in the spring of 2010, with winners announced in September. And 21 teams are vying to land a privately funded rover on the moon in pursuit of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. Last October a smaller X Prize–operated contest, the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, awarded $1 million to Masten Space Systems and $500,000 to Armadillo Aerospace for their progress in building a commercial rocket capable of safe vertical takeoff and landing, as demonstrated by successful tests in the Mojave Desert.

Other groups were also busy in 2009. Entries poured in for the £10 million ($17 million) Saltire Prize, to be awarded by the government of Scotland for wave or tidal energy technology that can produce a continuous output of 100 gigawatt-hours for two years. More than 100 teams will begin competition this month. In September, the DVD rental company Netflix paid out a $1 million purse to a seven-member team that developed an algorithm to improve its predictions of customers’ movie preferences. Netflix plans to announce a sequel early this year. Meanwhile, a company called InnoCentive is hosting hundreds of open questions in science and technology. Rewards range from $5,000 to $1 million.

X Prize founder Peter Diamandis thinks prize-based innovation is much more than a fad: “Investments where sponsors pay only for results are efficient, effective, low-risk mechanisms to solve problems.”

See DISCOVER's in-depth look at prize-based research, "Should American Science Be More Like 'American Idol'?"

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