In 1927 the aviation world marveled at Charles A. Lindbergh's nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh was in it for more than thrills: he was after the $25,000 Orteig Prize. In a 21st-century encore, the 12-year-old nonprofit X Prize Foundation conceives and manages competitions for daring innovators.
The foundation's game plan is to define an exciting target that benefits humanity, bait it with a large stack of cash, and draw out the best in design and invention from private, nongovernmental teams. The competitors, the thinking goes, will invest much more in technology chasing the prestige of the prize than the foundation will hand out at the awards ceremony.