Oil Spill Cleanup Contest Could Signal New Direction for X-Prize

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The X-Prize Foundation and Wendy Schmidt, venture capitalist and wife of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, announced a $1.4 million contest for new oil cleanup tech yesterday.

The one-year contest will culminate next year in a competition to determine which team can best recover oil from the surface of the ocean.

It's too early to know if the contest will yield interesting results, but it may be a sign that the X-Prize Foundation itself is shifting away from the long-term, incredibly ambitious goals it had set for previous prizes. At the very least, the organization will have a more diverse portfolio of contests.

The X-Prize Foundation rose to prominence on the back of the Ansari X Prize, which was awarded to aerospace designer Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen for building a spacecraft that could carry three people 100 kilometers up twice in two weeks. While it drew attention because it signaled a new beginning for private space exploration, what really got people excited was this: the prize purse was $10 million but competing teams spent $100 million. Prizes, it seemed, could provide (10x!) leverage to get more R&D done for less money.

But that Ansari win was back in 2004. Since then, a host of prizes have been launched in genetics, fuel efficiency, and landing a robot on the moon. But Ansari-level successes haven't come easily. Many of the contests have been going on for years without major milestones of progress.

The oil spill contest is being structured differently. The timeline is shorter, purse smaller, and goals more limited. For other X Prizes, the goals are technical and based on doing something out in the world, not on just being the best of the competitions. In this case, there will be a winner next year, no matter what, because it's about being relatively better, not hitting an absolute goal.

Will the new structure bring about the "radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity" that are the group's mission? Who knows, but at least we'll find out quickly.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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