Tidbits from the X Prize Charity Event at Google

As a child, I dreamed of going to space, and if you’d asked me in the 1960s, I would have had no doubt that I would be able to spend time on the moon during my lifetime. The sad state of space exploration has been a terrific disappointment to me.

As a result, I was delighted and privileged to attend the X Prize Foundation fundraiser at Google last night. If you’re not familiar with the X Prize, it’s a ten year-old charity that was originally founded to reignite the commercial space race using the same kind of prize mechanism that inspired Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris. Like the Orteig prize that inspired Lindbergh, achieving the goal of what became known as the Ansari X Prize (after major contributions by the Ansari family) took almost ten years. In 2004, Bert Rutan’s Spaceship One took the prize, which required “becoming the first private manned spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice within the span of a 14 day period.” The successor to this craft will be the basis of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Now, rather than disbanding, the foundation has set itself the ambitious goal of using the same mechanism to set new challenges in medicine, in energy, in automobiles, and in education.

In a recent interview, Tom Vander Ark, who left the Gates Foundation to become the new CEO of the X Prize Foundation, noted:

I’ve spent most of the last eight years in a more traditional philanthropic setting and have a pretty good understanding of the need for, but the limitations of, investing in direct service to those in need and investing in systems improvement. You could call it a “push” strategy.

Prize philanthropy is not new, but a seldom-used “pull” strategy, where you have the potential to set a high goal and activate a lot of excitement about that goal in a group of competitors and in the public.

Here are a few tidbits from the event:

  • The X Prize was originally funded with a “hack.” Adeo Ressi, who provided much of the original funding, told me that they actually funded the prize with insurance — they found an insurance company that would take the other side of the bet. He said the premium cost for the first eight years was about a million dollars in total, but jumped to $1.7 million in the last year as the insurance company got wise to what was about to happen.
  • I had the (accidental) privilege to sit next to Anousheh Ansari, who in addition to funding the X Prize as the ante went up, was the first female space tourist, spending two days on Soyuz and eight days on the International Space Station. (She blogged about it.) How great was it? She said, “If it wasn’t for my family, I wouldn’t have wanted to come back. When it came time to leave, I asked, ‘Can I hide, so I don’t have to go back now?'” That’s something to look forward to.
  • Among the prizes auctioned off were a flag that went to the moon and back, flights on Branson’s Spaceship Two, ZeroG flights with celebrities like Stephen Hawking, Larry, Sergey, and Robin Williams (who was attending the event), and holidays at Branson’s exclusive private island and African game reserve. (I can attest that ZeroG flights are awesome, albeit much more crowded than in the promotional videos! A word of advice to whomever bought the whole flights: don’t bring the advertised 32 people. 10 or 15 should be the max.) The event raised over $2 million.

  • Robin Williams stole the show. At the end, perhaps a bit frustrated with the auctioneer, he took over. And when Robin Williams takes over, no one gets in the way. We heard about how it’s hard to attach the pig to the gas tank of a methane-powered car but how a methane powered cars with bean-eating drivers connected to a large tank could easily make it to Las Vegas, and many other inappropriate visions of the future. He also did his (again, wildly inappropriate) impressions of Stephen Hawking on ZeroG. The cleanest part of his riff was his impersonations of in-car GPS for various countries. In Germany, the GPS says “Proceed 1,959,000 millimeters, then turn right.” In France, the GPS says “Before I can give you directions I need an espresso and a cigarette. Go buy a map.” No one can even remember the jokes. It was hilarious, but really all in the voices. If they do this again next year, Robin Williams should be the auctioneer.