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Landing X Prize in earthly endeavors

More than two years ago, after the first privately funded manned rocket soared into space to claim a $10-million prize, the man behind the contest brimmed with jubilation, a profound sense of relief and visions of the next frontier to conquer.

“I’m going to the stars,” he said at the time.

But, in fact, Peter Diamandis has moved on to something that, in many respects, is even more momentous. He has brought the concept of spurring “revolution through competition,” as he likes to say, back to Earth.

The X Prize Foundation, which Diamandis chairs, is looking to apply its “prize philanthropy” formula -- pushing for a radical breakthrough by dangling a multimillion-dollar carrot -- to an array of worldly issues. Among them: creating a car that gets the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon and ushering in an era of personalized medicine by developing DNA sequencing technology that is much faster and more affordable than what’s available now.

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The Santa Monica-based nonprofit foundation, which started in 1996, is even hoping to extend its methods to more purely social problems, such as battling poverty in developing nations and improving public education. Next week, two panels of experts are coming to town to discuss these subjects and start noodling how to fashion X Prizes around them.

And it is here that things promise to get especially interesting -- and difficult. Piloting a rocket nearly 70 miles into the heavens is one thing; crossing into a sphere where teachers’ unions and big-city mayors have a stake is another.

Beyond politics, how do you ensure that all the factors affecting the classroom -- socioeconomic status, parental involvement (or lack thereof), the motivation of individual students -- don’t undermine whatever measurable results an X Prize yields?

“It’s a fascinating puzzle,” says Tom Vander Ark, who was recently hired away from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he oversaw education programming, to become the X Prize’s president. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out right now.”

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The history of monetary prizes dates to at least 1714, when the British parliament offered a big pot of dough to the person who could precisely chart longitude. And lately, such incentives have become hot again. Just last week, airline mogul Richard Branson announced that he’d hand $25 million to whomever devises a technique for removing 1 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year from the atmosphere for a full decade. Others, including mail-order movie company Netflix Inc., are turning to cash awards so that big brains will help them lick certain challenges.

But the X Prize is clearly at the fore of the trend, particularly in terms of stretching this strategy into far-flung areas. The organization, which raises money from individuals and other foundations (and is working on plans to tap the venture capital community), will formally kick off a major fundraising campaign next month at Google Inc.'s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. (Google co-founder Larry Page is on the X Prize board and a generous donor.) The goal is to bring in $50 million to help get 10 to 15 new X Prizes off the ground over the next five years.

For Diamandis, 45, the possibilities seem boundless.

“It’s such a powerful tool,” he says. “It was obvious to expand it to energy and medicine. The question is what do we do next?”

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Initially, my instinct was to be skeptical about the X Prize as an agent for change -- or at least the kind of truly far-reaching change that the foundation touts. I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t just drunk the Kool-Aid (or maybe it’s Tang they gulp down over there).

But the more I consider it, the more I’m convinced: This is one idea that lives up to the hype. For starters, it’s extremely efficient; there’s no payout unless the intended breakthrough is realized. No innovation, no remuneration.

It’s also a marvelous way to leverage resources. The 26 teams vying for the space prize, for instance, spent more than $100 million in research and engineering in their quest for the $10 million. The winners alone laid out $26 million to bag the prize, driven by ego, passion and the recognition that they were making a long-term investment in an industry whose profile -- and potential -- had grown immeasurably because of the competition itself.

Simply by raising awareness, the X Prize can “bring even more people into an area -- and make it happen even quicker,” says Susan Hardin, the president of VisiGen Biotechnologies Inc., a Houston company that is pursuing the prize for genomics. There’s considerable value in “the buzz this will bring.”

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Indeed, Diamandis and Vander Ark say it’s no coincidence that the X Prize is administered down the road from Hollywood. Other prize efforts have tanked, they note, because the backers failed to adequately capture the drama inherent in these races. They didn’t promote the participants as heroes. With this in mind, the X Prize staff is talking with TV networks about a possible deal, and it has brought on a senior vice president of marketing who previously handled sponsorships for the Super Bowl and the Olympics.

“Really, we want to construct a set of stories,” says Bob Weiss, a movie producer who serves as vice chairman of the foundation. (You’ve got to love L.A. Where else can you find a guy with a background in robotics and space science who also helped bring us “The Blues Brothers” and several “Weird Al” Yankovic video collections?)

Ultimately, one of the chief aims of the X Prize is to transform the way we look at life, to make the unachievable suddenly seem feasible, even likely. The first X Prize wasn’t just about having a shuttlecock-shaped flying machine hurtle through the atmosphere. “It was about kids believing they can go to space,” Diamandis says.

The next set of prizes, should they materialize after careful study by the foundation, could one day make all of us believe that our schools can be places of excellence and that abject poverty doesn’t have to be a natural byproduct of a world in which the marketplace is king.

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The hurdles are huge. But should the X Prize folks succeed, it would be one giant leap for mankind.

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Rick Wartzman is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He is reachable at rick.wartzman@latimes.com.


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