Like many Californians, Peter Diamandis grew frustrated in recent years by the “craziness” of constant wildfire alerts he’s received.
But unlike most, he had a Rolodex full of wealthy benefactors and politicians, and a solution he had used numerous times before: Create a contest to find a better way.
On Friday, Diamandis, the founder of a group called XPrize, raised $11 million for the group’s latest contest: finding new ideas to detect and stop wildfires.
It seems a bit quixotic in the face of wildfires, which have grown increasingly destructive in recent decades as the impacts of climate change and suburban sprawl have heightened the West’s vulnerability.
But the launch event, on a rooftop in Washington, D.C., with a charcuterie tray and perfect views of the Capitol, was overflowing with the optimism of tech billionaires, politicians and wealthy donors, some of whom were sending in questions from a remote watch party. It also had support from federal agencies such as FEMA and California Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, who flew in for the event.
The aptly named Palmer Luckey, a 30-year-old founder of Oculus, a virtual reality company that sold for $2 billion, flew coach on an overnight flight from California to announce that he was forming the first team to compete for the prize. He said in an interview that he cares more about solving the problem than winning the money, though he does believe the cash will motivate other contestants.
“I sold my last company for billions of dollars so I can do whatever I want,” he said. “We started working on wildfire tech because I think it’s very, very important. The money in this prize to me is honestly immaterial.”
In remarks at the event, Luckey spoke confidently about eliminating all wildfires, arguing that software, not hardware, would make the difference in detecting and containing them.
The four-year contest is not winner-take-all. Teams will compete for top prizes of as much as $3.5 million and a bonus $1-million prize to develop technology that can detect fires both on the ground and from space, and fight them using drones or other autonomous vehicles. They’ll compete, for example, to see which technology can accurately detect fires across a land mass the size of a state or country in one minute or suppress them using an autonomous vehicle within 10 minutes.
Andrea Santy, who is running the competition for XPrize, agreed with Palmer that the prize money may not be the most important driver. Many teams will benefit from multiple rounds of live testing and validation that would be hard to organize independently, she said.
Prizes like this, though focused on innovation, are a throwback. Lorenzo Ghiberti won a contest in Renaissance Florence to create a set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of St John in 1401. Charles Lindbergh won a $25,000 prize in 1927 to take the first solo nonstop transatlantic flight from New York to Paris.
Such contests have had a revival in recent years, but research suggests they may not always be the best way to attract innovation.
Zorina Khan, author of “Inventing Ideas: Patents, Prizes and the Knowledge Economy,” said in an email that her research found “that prize systems tend to be arbitrary and inefficient.”
“Prizes do serve to attract attention to specific issues, but do not generally result in scalable technologies which can be commercialized into final goods that benefit users,” she added.
The XPrize organizers seemed well aware of the value of attracting attention. The group said it is spending an additional $11 million to run the contest, not counting the prize money. Some of that money will go toward funding a documentary about the competition.