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.

Events have borne out this prediction. The foundation set a goal in 1995 “to make space travel safe, affordable and accessible to everyone through the creation of a personal spaceflight industry.” In 2004 Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the Ansari X Prize as the first team to build a space plane that could reach low-Earth orbit, return to Earth and repeat the flight within two weeks. Twenty-six teams entered the contest and collectively spent more than $100 million on research.

The second prize, which the foundation offered in late 2006, is the $10-million Archon X Prize, for the first private team to sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days at a cost of less than $1 million. At least four teams have already signed up for the challenge of inventing an instrument that will correctly sequence 98 percent of each genome with no more than 60,000 errors.

The winning technology would accelerate deployment of new discoveries such as genome-wide association studies, which analyze large patient groups to identify genes responsible for complex hereditary diseases. A prominent supporter of the Archon X Prize is Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Last April the foundation also offered the Automotive X Prize, for the first 100-mile-per-gallon production car. And in September the group announced the $30-million Google Lunar X Prize purse for the first private groups to land spacecraft on the moon. Money may be an object for some, but there is no doubt that the challenges set by the X Prize Foundation light a fire under innovators worldwide.
—Kaspar Mossman