What is an X Prize?

Mary McMahon

An X Prize is a multimillion dollar award offered to a team which successfully answers a scientific challenge. The prizes are awarded by the X Prize Foundation, an organization based in California. The Foundation aims to promote scientific advancement and general progress, with an eye to benefiting humanity as a whole. Since X Prizes involve a great deal of money, they often attract public attention, which is part of the goal, since it focuses the public on emerging issues in technology and science.

X Prizes are multimillion dollar awards meant to encourage teamwork to face a challenge.
X Prizes are multimillion dollar awards meant to encourage teamwork to face a challenge.

The prizes are modeled on the aviation challenges of the early 20th century. Instead of funding research and development, these prizes rewarded specific responses to challenges, such as keeping an aircraft in flight for a set period of time, or completing a particular flight route. The first X Prize was the Ansari X Prize, awarded in 2004 to a team which successfully built a reusable spacecraft for suborbital flight. As of 2007, there were several ongoing X Prize challenges, with financial awards sponsored by a number of companies and organizations.

The X Prize Foundation believes that X Prizes work more efficiently than awarding people for past accomplishments or funding current research. Instead, the prizes reach for the entrepreneurial and competitive spirit common to humans around the world. The X Prizes actively promote teamwork, encouraging people to combine work in multiple disciplines to answer a challenge. Small, passionate teams may be able to accomplish things which are seemingly impossible, with enough motivation. Each X Prize clearly states the challenge involved, along with the monetary award.

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The Foundation has offered X Prizes for things like finding a rapid and efficient way of sequencing human genes, developing a highly fuel efficient and desirable car, and landing robotic devices on the moon. Many of these innovations could benefit society in general, as the technology could be applied to a wide range of things. Spaceflight in particular has benefited from X Prizes, as the Ansari X Prize paved the way to new developments in spaceflight.

The Foundation was established in 1995, and it benefits from funding through a variety of organizations; many X Prizes are named after the organizations which sponsor them. The X Prize board determines future challenges and appropriate awards for them. The board also judges the entries of teams competing for the prize, determining whether or not the team's effort meets the requirements. The organization's mission is to “bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.”

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