Monday, May 18, 2009

'Idol' Buzz: Prize Money Spurs Technology and Discovery

Adapted from "Reality Show Innovation," my "Futurist" column in the May 18 issue of CQ Weekly.

The small, two-seat silver "autogiro" in a far corner of the National Air and Space Museum's annex near Dulles Airport is an unusual contraption. Part wingless airplane, part helicopter, the AC-35 (pictured above) also was designed to fit in a garage and has three wheels for street driving at speeds as fast as 25 mph.

Aviation pioneer Harold Pitcairn's Autogiro Company of America built this prototype for a Depression-era competition sponsored by the Commerce Department. The goal was to make air travel as affordable and routine as a long car drive, but no competitor was able to come up with a machine that could be produced for even close to Commerce's targeted price tag of $700, or less than a modern Ford Focus after adjusting for 73 years of inflation.

Still, the legacy of this competition -- and similarly ambitious scientific and engineering contests over many decades -- is alive and well. A fast-growing number of philanthropic and government-sponsored prizes intended to harness entrepreneurial ingenuity seems to be signaling an "American Idol" approach to solving technological problems.

A March study of more than 200 large dollar awards conducted by McKinsey & Co. found that there was $253 million in prize money up for grabs in 2007 in technical and scientific categories ranging from aviation and space to engineering and the environment. That was a sevenfold increase from a decade before, when sponsors were offering $36 million in those categories. Prize money for the arts grew a modest 11 percent in that period. (See the full McKinsey & Co. report.)

Proof that prizes can spur innovation is in the Smithsonian's original Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington. That's the retirement home of SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded machine to carry a pilot outside the atmosphere. Back-to-back flights in 2004 earned its designers the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a philanthropic award intended to reduce the cost of human space travel. The prize was inspired in part by the $25,000 award Charles Lindbergh claimed -- 82 years ago this week -- for making the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris. And now SpaceShipOne hangs in the Smithsonian right beside Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis.

With help from Google, Progressive Insurance and other sponsors, the X Prize Foundation has moved on to an array of daunting new contests. More than 100 teams are vying for multimillion- dollar awards for building new kinds of fuel-efficient cars. Another X Prize challenges scientists to develop faster ways to sequence genomes. And to encourage commercial development of the moon, a $30 million prize awaits the first privately funded team that can successfully land and operate a robotic lunar rover.

Governments are getting into the act, too. One NASA contest earned $200,000 for an engineer from Maine who designed a glove that makes spacewalking astronauts more dexterous. Ongoing space agency "Centennial Challenges" are pushing inventors and scientists to develop technology that would transmit electricity without wires and generate oxygen from elements found in simulated lunar soil.

Federal agencies, corporations and philanthropies are not the only ones offering prizes. Teams of programmers submitted dozens of Web pages, Facebook tools and iPhone applications during a 30-day "Apps for Democracy" contest sponsored by the District of Columbia government last year. Vivek Kundra, the city's chief technology officer at the time, told GOVERNING magazine that Washington got about $2.6 million worth of computer development out of the contest in exchange for a $50,000 expense, nearly half of it for prizes. Now that Kundra is a senior technology official in the Obama administration, even more contests seem likely at the federal level.

Contests can motivate innovation, capture the public imagination and even change opinions and create new markets. But a big cash prize does not guarantee success, short-term or long-term. Not long before SpaceShipOne made its maiden voyage beyond the atmosphere, designer Burt Rutan predicted that suborbital space flights would be as affordable as luxury cruises by 2016 or so. His company has begun to test a new aircraft that would serve as an aerial ferry for SpaceShipTwo, designed primarily for wealthy astrotourists. Ultimately good technology and good economics will determine whether Rutan's bold plans will fly or whether they will be a historic footnote -- like that quirky AC-35 autogiro.

Back in October 1936, hundreds gathered outside Commerce's headquarters near the Mall to see the odd-looking prototype land. "Here on our doorstep was a bit of the future," wrote Washington Post reporter Eugene Warner, who fashioned his coverage into a poem for the next day's paper. Noting the manufacturer's ultimately optimistic price estimates, he wrote:

"It may sell for more, maybe for less
Its future price is only a guess.
But it's easy to picture a plague in the sky
As clouds of gyros glide lazily by."

Seven decades later, commuting remains landlocked. That won't stop prize sponsors and entrepreneurial competitors from looking up, nor should it -- as long as someone is watching the bottom line.

(Photo of the AC-35 prototype by Mark Stencel)

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