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JUNE 2009

RSS Feed Peter Diamandis, M.D.: CEO, The X Prize

Recently, Dr. Peter Diamandis spoke eloquently at a dinner at the Cosmopolitan Club sponsored by the American Farm School, based in Thessaloniki, Greece. Founded in 1904, the school’s mission was to teach the poor rural youth of Greece how to support themselves and their communities through training in modern agricultural techniques and leadership skills. The American Farm School is now one of the world’s leading agricultural institutions. Chair of the Board of Trustees: Charlotte Armstrong; Co-Chair, NY Committee, American Farm School: Joannie Danielides.

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

The three mantra-like goals that appear on Peter H. Diamandis’ “Unauthorized Top-Secret Website” only hint at the propulsive energy and idiosyncratic imagination that inform this brilliant, extraordinary innovator and entrepreneur: (1) “The meek shall inherit the earth. The rest of us are going to the stars. (2) My Mission is: to open the space frontier for humanity; and (3) The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” The statements appear alongside a smiling, flying (yes, flying, think zero gravity) Dr. Diamandis—he has an MD from Harvard, a graduate degree in aerospace engineering from MIT, where he received an undergraduate degree in molecular genetics, and an honorary doctorate from the International Space University, one of two companies he founded in his fourth year of medical school. That was when he finally determined to follow his heart, his “passion”—which was “space,” a passion that he had felt from the time he was eight or nine and that would become his life’s “mission.”    

The 48-year old founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, the Zero Gravity Corporation (“parabolic weightless flights [for] the general public”), Space Adventures, Ltd. (flying private citizens on Soyuz to the International Space Station), Robotics Competitions for kids (among many more) talks about his risk-taking enterprises with total confidence. His impassioned, nonstop manner could be said to be the verbal equivalent of the speed of light. Others might be driven, Dr. Diamandis drives himself and loves the ride.

It was a ride that began in awe of other rides—specifically, the Apollo Spacecraft Program and earlier, Lindbergh’s “The Spirit of St. Louis.” Space always thrilled him. He recalls a childhood poster contest for dental health care that featured a Saturn rocket: “Going away? Brush Three Times a Day.” And of course there were the movies that looked to the future. He “hates” looking back, he says. The Golden Age is always ahead, in science and technology, forty years ago is ancient history.

Of all his award-winning accomplishments, however, arguably the one that most exemplifies his goals is the X PRIZE, a ten-million dollar contest run under the aegis of the X PRIZE Foundation. “Rather than awarding money to honor past achievements or directly funding research, an X PRIZE incites innovation by tapping into our competitive and entrepreneureial spirits.” The Foundation, “an educational nonprofit prize institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for humanity,” took five years to become reality but the difficulty was worth it. It is more than a fascinating contest. It is meant to be an educational and intellectual model.

Dr. Diamandis wants youngsters to feel challenged in school, to dare fly in the face of norms, not to be afraid to take risks, to persevere in what they love. Today’s “crazy idea” may well become tomorrow’s discovery, he tells youngsters. If you love doing something, you’ll keep on doing it, and if you see that you can indeed succeed once, you’ll keep at it. He is appalled at the “boredom” he sees in school children, their lock-step so-called education to get through, to get by. “Our educational structure is 100 years old.” Kids love games, contests. Of course, so do grown-up “kids” like Dr. Diamandis. There is nothing amiss in “incentivizing” youngsters or adults with the prospect of wealth. Why not? Encouraging competition by way of monetary reward and a desire to be or do something significant sure beats motives such as fear or idle curiosity. 

Although the X PRIZE website details various contests, the $10 million “Progressive Automotive X PRIZE,” scheduled to be awarded to the winner of a race to be run in 2010, may prove particularly fascinating, given the rising costs of fuel and growing attention to electric cars and hybrids. Approximately 136 vehicles from 11 nations and 25 states have already asked to compete. And it will indeed be a race—who can go the fastest, getting 100 miles to the gallon or more. Criteria also include beauty, size, price, ease of manufacturing, safety. The heart of the enterprise, as Dr. Diamandis says, will be to get teams and the public watching the race to “rethink the idea of how cars and driving affect our lives.” Let’s have a new automotive standard, a “fundamental mind shift” about cars. And about space and the seas. Indeed, the ocean floor is now driving much of Dr. Diamandis’ thinking. We map only five percent of the ocean floor now. How can we penetrate the rest and exploit ideas for new energy sources, clean up the Pacific’s “garbage patches” of nonbiodegradables, design new submarines to explore new depths? Is it surprising that another Diamandis enterprise is called Blast Off? #



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