Can competing for a prize help jumpstart innovation? For decades, the XPRIZE has offered major financial incentives to encourage researchers to take on space flight, climate change, water supply, and education.
Now it’s setting its sights on COVID-19. The XPRIZE has created a new task force called the Pandemic Alliance, which is encouraging collaboration. A number of partners have already signed on, including IBM, Intel, Anthem, and academic institutions like UCLA and Boston University.
KCRW speaks with Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation.
What are some of the main goals of the Pandemic Alliance?
Ansari: “Vaccines and tests are at the forefront of our goal to find ways to accelerate the work of researchers and institutions who are already putting a lot of effort into it. The whole point of the alliance is to create an environment of sharing of information and data and research, and aligning the different groups and organizations to work together to get to the answers faster.
We are a competition organization at the core. But we've seen in the past how our teams come together and sort of do a coopetition [sic] because at the end, they all want to solve the problem. That's the mission.
And in this situation, even companies that normally would compete are collaborating together because we all have a common enemy, a common goal to solve the problem of this pandemic so we can open up the world again and get people back to work.
Right now, many scientists and researchers are pressured to patent everything and not share data. People you’ve spoken to — are they willing to share info in some areas and not others? Or are they completely onboard with collaboration?
“We have been overwhelmed with the willingness of everyone to share their information and research and data. Where we are all very careful is when it comes to the privacy of any patient information. The researchers are very willing to work together and share their information.
Vaccines and tests have been just part of the solutions that we've been looking at.
But we're also creating a marketplace to facilitate exchange of ideas, information and resources to get solutions and distribution of PPE and other devices to the frontline health workers and to the patients and hospitals that need these types of devices as well.
The original XPRIZE was a contest. The first private group that could fly 100 kilometers into space won $10 million. Is that kind of incentive on the table right now?
“The challenges that we are working on are smaller, short term challenges. They'll be more in the order of $1-2 million over maybe six to 18 months.”
What kinds of goals are you trying to achieve with these $1 to 2 million prizes?
“We haven't announced any challenges yet. They're in the design process and working to find sponsors.
But one major area that we feel is important … [is] vaccine development. I think the next big challenge is … finding the best possible ways of distributing these at low cost to every country. So we are looking at the competition in the distribution supply chain for vaccines and tests.
We're also looking at predictive models that can be more accurate and better predict pandemics at the onset.
We're also looking at creating … better standards for privacy while these contact tracing apps are basically coming along. And a lot of different organizations, different countries are offering these to the citizens.
It's important for us to look at how we can create a standard for privacy and transparency, so people know how their information is being used and perhaps build the backbone of sharing of this data amongst different apps that will actually enable a better view of how the virus is spread.”
Some people might say that a government lab or well-known research university should take on these big issues. Why does the Pandemic Alliance have a part to play here?
“We've always played a role in this type of areas [sic] where the traditional institutions or governments have failed to do what perhaps the world expected them to do.
Space is a good example. When the race to space started, we all heard that eventually we will all be able to have a commercial space program. But we just celebrated 50 years of humans going to space. And so far only 550 people have made it to space.
Since XPRIZE launched the competition — I think it was 1998 when we announced it — that whole landscape changed. And now we have a very thriving commercial space program. So this is no different.
We know that the governments should have done this and could have done this, but for many reasons that may be different in each country, they are not focused on solving this problem.
But we have individuals, institutions, companies who are willing to at least do their part to come up with the solutions. And through the alliance, we're able to pull these resources together and try to achieve what governments have failed to do.”