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Three New Crowdsourced XPRIZES Launched for Ocean Health

On October 22, the XPRIZE launched an Ocean Initiative, which aims to give three new global prizes to teams that develop technologies by 2020 that protect ocean health.

In September, the nonprofit group had launched the $2 Million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, which challenges teams to create affordable pH sensor technology that will help scientists measure ocean acidification.

The XPRIZE was founded in 1995 as a nonprofit prize program (formerly called the X Prize Foundation) to spur innovation around pressing global problems. Past XPRIZE efforts have focused on private efforts in suborbital commercial spaceflight, efficient cars, and moon rovers.

In 2004, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne was awarded the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for spaceflight for soaring more than 100 kilometers (62 miles).

National Geographic spoke with Paul Bunje, senior director for oceans at XPRIZE.

What will the new ocean prizes specifically address?

I wish I could tell you but that’s the exciting part about what we’re doing here. We believe that if we’re going to live by our mantra that anyone can solve a grand challenge, then anyone can also help us identify what the challenge should be. So we’re opening up the XPRIZE program, and asking the public to help us identify what those next three prizes should be. It’s a little bit scary as you might imagine.

We know the issues facing the oceans, with pollution, overfishing, acidification, and so on. But it would be folly for us not to involve as much of the globe as possible in figuring out the solutions.

How will the process work?

[On October 22] we announce three more ocean XPRIZES, making five total over 10 years. [The Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE had granted $1.4 million in 2011 for efforts to improve remediation technologies.]

Anyone can submit their idea for the new prizes, but that’s not really sufficient for identifying a grand challenge. Through our Ocean Ambassador program we want people to join us. When they sign up they will go through learning, and connect with experts like Sylvia Earle.

We want Ocean Ambassadors who will really commit and join us in the ideation process. It’s more involved than just tossing up a quick idea on Facebook, we want people who are really going to put some work into this.

Any idea how many Ocean Ambassadors you are looking for?

We’re looking for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. I’d be over the moon if we had 10,000 people who were working a few hours a month on this.

Some conventional wisdom says it’s difficult to get people to contribute a significant amount of work for free. People are keen to submit a photo or take another quick action, but ask them for something more involved and you tend to get a much lower response rate. Are you concerned about that?

We’re trying to design the program so it’s like a funnel: in the first instance lots of people will want to give us ideas and maybe some will follow those ideas. Over time we’ll bring people closer and closer into the funnel, so a smaller and smaller group will become very active. It’s not enough to simply submit an idea and have people vote on them because there’s a lot more that goes into it for an XPRIZE.

The important thing for us is there are people out there with great ideas that we don’t know of, who are outside the established system of university professors, explorers in residence, and so on. What we need to figure out is launching the program and letting it be designed by the crowd.

Are the new ocean XPRIZES also supported by Wendy Schmidt [who is president of the Schmidt Family Foundation and is married to Google chair Eric Schmidt]?

Wendy has graciously helped seed our ocean initiative but it is intended to grow with other philanthropists and individual donors. We’ll have to identify new sponsors.

You have said this is the most ambitious XPRIZE program to date, suggesting it tops the race of private efforts to space supported by the Ansari XPRIZE in 2004. Why?

The oceans are completely underexplored and underfinanced. We don’t want to give up on space, clearly, but there has been a real abdication in funding ocean exploration by governments, it’s fleetingly small now and getting smaller. So what the XPRIZE recognizes is that we just haven’t explored them. It’s our belief that discovery creates great things.

The other side of it is the oceans are the lungs of our planet, so it’s planetary health we’re talking about. If we’re not willing to address what is happening in our oceans then it’s putting humanity at risk.

The XPRIZEs are about radical breakthroughs for the betterment of humanity. They will have exponential impact on industries and protect our oceans, so if we want to better humanity there’s no better place to start.

Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.