In engineering labs, home garages and makeshift workshops around the world, innovators drew up plans, designed and tinkered in a race to get to space.
Teams of former NASA engineers competed with hobbyists, university students, and a group of of 1,000 Toronto volunteers for the most democratic innovation prize ever.
The result was SpaceShipOne, a rocket that made major leaps toward commercial space travel and became the first ever X Prize winner.
The X Prize is like the American Idol of world-changing technology, open to anyone with the talent and the drive to compete.
Since the first award was granted for space travel, X Prizes have crowdsourced ideas to solve major problems, tackling everything from oil spill cleanup to technology driven solutions to global learning.
The latest X Prize winners created a real-life version of Star Trek’s tricorder.
The self-funded team of friends and siblings from Pennsylvania beat more than 300 others, including teams with corporate and government funding, and revolutionized health care in developing communities with a diagnostic tool that will allow patients to self-diagnose 34 conditions.
And because teams can come from anywhere, bringing with them diverse backgrounds and skill sets, the next world-changing solution might come from anyone.
Even a bee-keeper.
“My goal is to talk to my bees,” says Marc-André Roberge, co-founder of Nectar and an entrant in the IBM Watson A.I. X Prize, to be announced in 2020.
Nectar uses artificial intelligence technology to eavesdrop on bees, a system designed to monitor hive behaviour in the face of colony collapse disorder, the mysterious disappearance of bees that threatens the world food supply.
“The X Prize is like the American Idol of world changing technology, open to anyone with the talent and the drive to compete.”
For Roberge, bee-keeping was a hobby — until he saw a global problem he could solve with his design and tech background.
Roberge calls the X Prize a “force for good.” Between the prize money, mentorship and networking opportunities, Roberge sees the competitive environment as an ecosystem breeding solutions to pressing problems.
“It takes a village to build something that will have a good impact on the world,” he says.
Prizes are not always the right solution, says Luciano Kay, a Research Fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara.
Some issues — like new drug treatments — are so complex and require so much investment and sustained research, it’s unreasonable to expect individuals to match the efforts of governments.
Still, the wild success of the first X Prize has led to a renaissance in what we’re calling crowdsourced innovation, which dates back to the 1700s when the British government offered a prize to improve ocean navigation.
Today, everyone from NASA to Netflix are calling on the public to spur the hunt for alien life and help strangers pick the right movie.
Recent research suggests this is more than a publicity stunt. Harvard University looked at the Royal Agricultural Society of England and concluded that prizes handed out between 1839 and 1939 led to not only more patents, but improved inventions as well.
The X Prize changes what people believe is possible. And that’s the first step toward innovation.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. For more dispatches from WE, check out WE Stories.