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X Prize extends its reach

Alex Wong / Getty Images file
Peter Diamandis says the X Prize
Foundation is going global.

The X Prize Foundation successfully pulled off a $10 million contest for the first privately developed spaceship and is offering tens of millions of dollars for feats ranging from mass-market genomes to moon missions. By purely monetary measures, today's announcement about the foundation's three-year, $7 million philanthropic deal with Britain's BT telecommunications giant may not rank as high. But the way X Prize founder Peter Diamandis sees it, this is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

"The X Prize is going global," Diamandis, the foundation's chairman, told me today.

He explained that until now, the California-based foundation's activities have been mostly U.S.-centric. "We have partnered with BT to take the X Prize to Europe and Asia, and South America, and we have an incredible partnership," he said.

Over the next three years, BT (a.k.a. British Telecom) will be providing $7 million in operating funds to the foundation, and also sharing its scientific and technological expertise as new X Prizes are rolled out.

Diamandis has said that the foundation wants to create two or three new prizes each year, focusing on five areas: exploration, life sciences, energy and the environment, education and global development. Today, Diamandis told me one or two prizes are in the works for unveiling by the end of the year.

The likeliest next X Prize will have to do with cancer research. Diamandis acknowledged that such a prize "is on the horizon," but didn't provide specifics.

"Also in life sciences, we're looking at human longevity, and what we internally call 'the bionic man,' the challenge to give a quadriplegic the ability to play a round of golf," he said.

Golf for the bionic man? That's just a theoretical example of how the X Prize programs try to bring blue-sky technological innovations down to earth. "It's about creating something that's simple, that a kid can talk about over the dinner table," Diamandis said.

Right now, the best-known and richest X Prize effort is the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize, which would reward the first privately funded teams to put a rover on the moon. Thirteen teams have registered so far, and lots of activity is being reported on the team forums.

Diamandis said the $10 million Archon X Prize for Genomics is also plugging along, with seven registered teams aiming to sequence 100 genomes in 10 days at a cost of no more than $10,000 each. The "Genome 100" will include celebrities and benefactors, as well as randomly selected members of the general public who may derive medical benefit from the exercise.

"The notion is that when you have very rapid full-genome sequencing and can eventually sequence the genomes of thousands of millions of individuals, you can create statistical databases that say everyone with this profile has the potential to develop adult-onset diabetes," Diamandis said, citing just one possible example. The genetic revelations could lead to new strategies for heading off such diseases.

"It's making medicine preventative rather than reactive," Diamandis said.

Then there's the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize, which would reward the development of commercially viable vehicles that get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. "We have over 90 teams that have signed letters of intent from 12 countries so far," Diamandis said. The next steps include finalizing the rules and selecting the cities where the X Prize races will take place in 2009 and 2010.

Diamandis said he was gratified to hear about GOP presumptive presidential candidate John McCain's proposal for a $300 million, federally funded prize for breakthroughs in battery technology - and he only wishes his likely Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, was more savvy about the prize paradigm.

"We have been working and will continue to work with both campaigns to educate them about the potential for incentive prizes to produce breakthroughs far beyond what government programs can do," he said.

The only drawback he sees in McCain's plan is that it focuses solely on one potential solution (battery storage capacity for electric vehicles and hybrids) to the exclusion of others (such as biofuels).

"One of the key attributes of an X Prize is not to choose the solution, but to identify the problem," he said. "What we really need are super-efficient cars. Whether that's done with batteries or better engines is to be determined."

Diamandis provided congressional testimony on the energy theme during the debate over the H-Prize for hydrogen-based energy breakthroughs, and at the time he said plenty of government agencies could benefit from a prize-fueled push. The X Prize Foundation already has been helping NASA manage multimillion-dollar prizes for spaceworthy activities, such as the Lunar Lander Challenge. So if McCain - or Obama, for that matter - came knocking at Diamandis' door looking for advice on an energy prize, he'd be glad to oblige.

"We are working with other agencies we cannot disclose yet," Diamandis told me. "If such a prize were to materialize, we'd love to help design it."