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WANTED: 100,000 Innovators in 100,000 Garages

I've written more than once before about America's need for 100,000 innovators in 100,000 garages around the country working on 100,000 ideas to create what will be to the green revolution what Google and eBay were to the Internet revolution.  The concept is actually Thomas Friedman's and I buy into it wholeheartedly, but I've been wondering lately, Where are those innovators? 

Why don't we hear about the Hewletts and Packards and Dells and Brins working in their garages or dorm rooms to free us from a dependence on supply-limited fossil fuels?  Maybe, it turns out, I'm just not looking in the right places. 

In fact, my son (a freshman at ASU Barrett Honors College), informed me the other night that there are at this very moment about two dozen teams competing for the latest X PRIZE - a share of $10 million to those that produce clean, production-capable, super-fuel efficient vehicles (at least 100 miles per gallon or energy equivalent).  He took notice, not because he's the engineering type (he's majoring in Renaissance literature) but because he's driving an older, gas-guzzling hand-me-down from his grandmother.  He travels in relative luxury, but at 12 miles to the gallon he has less to spend on the things he really cares about (movies, music, video games, and eats with his entourage of friends).

The mission of this X PRIZE, sponsored by Progressive Insurance, is "to inspire a new generation of viable, super-efficient vehicles that help break our addiction to oil and stem the effects of climate change." 

The Automotive X PRIZE is among three currently running competitions.  The Archon X PRIZE for Genomics awards $10 million to the first team to successfully sequence 100 human genomes in 10 days.  The Google Lunar X PRIZE awards $30 million to the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth. 

The first competition, the Ansari X PRIZE, was awarded to Scaled Composites, a team led by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, the first private team to build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth's surface, twice within two weeks.

Watch this amazing video about the X PRIZE:

What's so incredible to me about the X PRIZE competitions is that they encourage private innovators - entrepreneurs from already-famous engineers and already-wealthy financiers to up-and-coming kids with brilliant ideas - to really think outside the box.

It's just the kind of thinking we're going to need to solve what I think will be two of this century's biggest problems:

  1. Stagnating American competitiveness at the same time that developing nations like China and India become increasingly competitive in the same kind of high-end sectors we used to call ours. If America is going to remain an economic superpower, we've got to get back in the game (the other players are already far ahead). We've got to house this century's breakthrough technologies - in areas like ultra high-efficiency vehicles and clean energy production.
  2. Increasingly problematic reliance on fossil fuels. As I wrote the other day, there are a number of good reasons to pursue alternative (non-fossil) forms of energy production. "One is that someday the world will need more energy than fossil fuels can provide.. . Another good reason to pursue non-fossil fuels is to reduce our negative impact on our environment. Who wants to live on a dirty planet? And, we could certainly become less dependent on foreign countries to satisfy our energy needs."

"The X PRIZE was modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize, offered in 1919 by wealthy hotelier Raymond Orteig, to the first pilot who could fly non-stop between New York and Paris. The prize was finally won in 1927 by an unknown airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh. Lindbergh won the hearts of a nation, and his world-changing achievement spawned a $300 billion aviation industry."

Grand innovators have been college kids, entrepreneurial engineers, tinkering airmail pilots. All with big ideas and the motivation to turn them into reality.  The X PRIZE is an inspiring way to generate that motivation, but the government would also do well to offer greater financial incentives - R&D grants, innovation subsidies - to motivate more out-of-the-box thinking in more innovators in more garages.

What's your take?  Write a comment below -- no registration required.

Written on Friday, 11 June 2010 06:30 by Gary Yaquinto

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