BY Gregory Ferenstein
Wed Apr 20, 2011
The X Prize Foundation has grabbed A-list investors and CNN headlines for their industry-creating multi-million dollar innovation competitions, from commercial space travel to oil-spill cleanup. Yet, for fear of spooking their high-profile brain trust, the foundation has been camera shy about letting journalists document the brainstorming sessions that begin the investigation for a viable competition.
“Visioneering,” as they call it, is an aggressively mediated, debate-centric conversation between thought leaders in multiple industries that funnels dozens of wildly optimistic solutions through a series of cut-throat voting rounds. For X Prize, and members of the White House in attendance to learn their method, competitive brainstorming is necessary to give participants an understanding of the commercial viability of a prize, induce attendees into life-long membership, and focus the foundation’s own research process.
In white makeshift domes on Fox’s Los Angeles studio lot, participants gathered last weekend on couches for three-hour sessions on a topic of their choice (ranging from education to neuro-medicine). In the education session, CEO Peter Diamandis presides over a semi-circle of relaxed onlookers. A small team flanks him, busily synthesizing ideas from the group into headline-like phrases on two giant white boards, furnishing participants with beverages, and archiving all ideas for later retrieval.
To begin, Diamanidis canvasses the group for every big-picture solution they can muster, which elicits ideas on everything from brain-based curricula to robotic tutoring. Redundant ideas are clustered into 10 (or fewer!!) areas, which serve as the basis for breakout groups to design their own prize.
Though Diamandis likes to share jovial bantering with the group, he is equally quick to cut off rambling speakers, call out semantic hair-splitting, and isn’t afraid to exercise executive judgement on how ideas should be grouped or rephrased. Everything runs on time.
After breakout groups return with their own skeleton outline of a prize, the ideas are whittled down through successive voting rounds, where representatives from each group deliver timed, passionate speeches in the hopes that their idea will be selected to compete in Sunday’s two-hour voting/advocacy marathon.
“Not coming up with a prize model, for me, is a waste of time,” says VP of Prize Development, Francis Béland, “The prize model is restrictive by definition.” A successful X Prize must not only attract big-pocketed philanthropic backers, but also be achievable in a short enough time to excite engineers from around the world.
“The trick with science is you have to have the right science, but you also have to have somebody who can promote it,” former Google CEO Eric Schmidt tells Fast Company.
Multidisciplinary groups help scientists frame their ideas with some PR sexiness. For instance, in one breakout session, filmmaker James Cameron and CNN Anchor Ali Velshi spent 20 minutes politely grilling legendary ocean scientist Don Walsh on how to mold his idea of an ocean data-collection ship into a workable prize. Thus, what began as a generic “automated payload and collection device” transformed into a robotic race around the world that could simultaneously help discover the giant floating plumes of oil left by BP. Cameron was always quick to tell the group, the idea has “got to hold the public’s imagination.”
“You get what you incentivize,” concludes Béland. “So ask your question very well.”
Making Life-Long Supporters
The voting process plays an important role in recruiting and energizing members. Passionate advocacy “puts your heart, your soul behind an idea,” says Béland.
We’ve written recently on how public declarations of opinion have powerful psychological effects on the speaker’s beliefs. In the process of forming the argument, individuals are forced to deeply reflect on all the reasons and emotion that underlie a position. Then, once expressed, the public stamp of approval ties their reputation to an idea, further entrenching their commitment.
After a fun, yet heated debate, “you get a room full of people that are there becoming your evangelists.” Even if the idea doesn’t garner votes from their peers, the deep-pocketed advocates may take up the cause themselves. For instance, Wendy Schmidt sponsored her own X Prize competition for oil-spill cleanup.
Narrowing Ideas and Market Failure
In part, X Prize’s insistence on lock-step punctuality is one of necessity. “You saw the caliber of people?” Béland asks, “You cannot have them for more than a day and a half.” Prize vetting can take years, with scientific experts, corporate sponsorship, and potential media interest all as gatekeepers for a viable competition. Visioneering serves as the “genesis” to narrow the team’s investigation.
Additionally, X Prize sees non-profit backed competition as a spring-board to boost ideas into the free market. Were there money to be made from an idea, companies would have poured funds into R&D. Competitions generate many times the prize value in the research process. If 20 teams spend $8 million for a $10 million purse, that’s 8 times the research value (in reality, many teams spend much more than the total prize value in development). After the initial breakthrough, corporations such as Virgin Galactic can plug it into the free market self-perpetuation machine.
In the meantime, power players are happy to spend a weekend imagining the far-fetched solutions at the heart of the process. For record-selling artist and Super Bowl choreographer Will.I.Am (who raced over from his brother’s wedding to DJ a dance party for the private gathering), coming to X Prize was worth it because “I like to take a peek at the future, even if it’s only a potential future.”