Prizes and Innovation Can Save Our Oceans

06/08/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016


By Matt Huelsenbeck

What would you do with $10 million to incentivize breakthrough technologies to save our oceans?

This is the type of ambitious thinking that we at XPRIZE do every day. We put our minds into a future state where innovation sparked by a prize competition has helped us overcome some of the planet's grandest challenges.

The oceans are an ideal arena for XPRIZE because they are replete with environmental threats, market failures, a lack of basic scientific understanding, limited positive media stories and poor public awareness. Prizes for innovative technologies can inspire solutions to these problems.

I have seen firsthand how a prize can be an effective tool for change through the success of the $2-million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a competition to dramatically improve our understanding of ocean acidification through revolutionary ocean pH sensors. We recently finished the final phase of testing, where the five finalist teams' sensors were evaluated for performance at the crushing depth of 3,000 meters off the coast of Hawaii. The final judging of that data has begun, and the winners will be announced in July.

The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE has already led to an exponential increase in the number of ocean pH sensors, 10 novel technologies, several new ocean sensor companies and products, and new careers in ocean engineering -- all for a fraction of the price of traditional funding for research and development.

The pace of a prize is also significant. Distinct competition deadlines for testing and judging the devices force concrete steps in research and development that otherwise may have lingered. Many of the innovators on competing teams say hitting the deadlines set forth by XPRIZE is the greatest challenge.

Another huge benefit of a prize is the widespread attention it garners. A prize gives innovators a platform for recognition on a world stage. We need to promote our scientists and engineers like they are music or movie stars. Redirecting the focus toward solutions and breaking the cycle of writing and rewriting the obituaries for the oceans is also imperative.

Prizes attract innovators to move into a designated field, sometimes new to them, and solve a specified problem. Team members competing in our two ocean-based prizes to date have come from varied backgrounds outside oceanography, including food industry professionals, surfers, high school students and even tattoo artists.

We plan to launch three more ocean-based prizes in the next five years as part of the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to launch impactful prizes and inspire other actions that put us on an unstoppable path toward healthy, valued and understood oceans.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has been studying the oceans for more than 40 years. During that time, she says she's seen things that brought her to tears. But she adds,  "I've also seen places come back to life because people cared, because they were willing to do something. They were willing to be creative, to engage others, and to be problem solvers ... not just to walk away. That's what we need more of."

So today, on World Oceans Day, try to think of big, innovative solutions. What's your idea to save the ocean? What would your next ocean XPRIZE be? Next step, go turn that idea into a breakthrough and change the world!

Matthew Huelsenbeck is Prize Manager, Oceans, at XPRIZE.

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