Eyes on the X Prize

An exclusive look into the competition that creates radical breakthroughs

written by Alexandra Schmidt
photography by Michal Czerwonka

 

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Tucked inconspicuously at the back of a breezy office park near Marina del Rey is an organization that plans to change the universe. Based on the belief that a prize model can spark solutions to some of humanity's most intractable challenges, the X PRIZE Foundation awards the largest incentivized cash prize in the world. It's Trish Halamandaris' ('92) job to spread that gospel.

Halamandaris began her career in consulting, but she says it was a bit quiet for her. After earning her MBA from UCLA Anderson, she redirected her professional aims toward the more extroverted world of marketing. She spent many years working at celebrated companies like Disney and Electronic Arts, and then decided it was time for a change.

In January of 2012, Halamandaris started her job as SVP of Marketing for The X PRIZE Foundation. Today, she darts around the office in jeans and ballet flats, attending back-to-back meetings about a website overhaul and marketing rollout for prizes in progress. It's the nitty-gritty work that any marketer does, only now, there are bigger motives than profit.

X PRIZE Foundation launched as a nonprofit in 1995, the brainchild of then medical doctor Peter Diamandis. Diamandis had always dreamed of going into space, but, not being an astronaut, thought it impossible. He came upon a historical anecdote that changed his mind. It was the story of Charles Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis, the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Diamandis learned that the flight took place as the result of a $25,000 incentivized prize, and, on top of Lindbergh's feat, wound up launching the transatlantic airline industry.

Thus, the seed for X PRIZE was planted. Diamandis announced the first prize: the $10,000,000 Ansari X PRIZE, which challenged nongovernmental entities to launch a manned spacecraft into space. He dove headlong into fundraising for the competition which, in turn, created the non-profit X PRIZE Foundation. The Foundation now works to develop other themed competition categories, including life sciences, automotive and education, among others. Teams from around the world compete over an average of three years to win the competitions, and the Foundation acts as the go-between, connecting winners with the corporations and individuals that provide the prize money.

This is a moment of significant change for X PRIZE, and Halamandaris' presence in the office is proof of that. The prize operated in what she calls "startup mode" for a long time. The Foundation now has four competitions successfully completed, four active competitions, and many more being developed. And, through the Ansari prize, they boast the not inconsequential accomplishment of having developed the technology that Richard Branson licensed to create Virgin Galactic. Proof of concept, in other words, is here for the prize model.

But growing up isn't easy. The organization needs to get serious about marketing, but crystallizing a brand may be difficult as X PRIZE evolves. Sanjay Sood, Associate Professor of Marketing for UCLA Anderson, says nonprofits often have a hard time getting a message across regardless of where they are in their lifecycle. For a nonprofit that gives away money, "you have to go several steps into the conversation before people understand your purpose," says Sood. Add to that the fact that X PRIZE is trying to solve so many problems-their tagline is "radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity"-and Sood says the need to crystallize the organization's function becomes mission critical. It's important not only for the general public's understanding, he says, but also for potential competitors. "There has to be some kind of logic and reasoning there in order for the people to understand when to go to X PRIZE for their projects."

How do those nuances become a compelling story? It begins with the founder's vision-the spark that started the organization-and builds from there. Developing that narrative hasn't been a complete breeze for Halamandaris. Coming from a marketing and business background, she says, her approach can seem utterly alien to a room full of engineers. But, as she's explained what the prize stands to gain by defining itself and promoting its message in the world, she's brought her colleagues along. And while conversations about brand can be a challenge for non-marketing staff, those self-reflective explorations can have beneficial effects on internal process, too.

At a morning meeting, Halamandaris sits at a long oval conference table with 10 others to discuss an event that will help spread the word-a big publicity affair for the Archon Genomics Prize presented by Express Scripts®. This particular prize will have groups competing to create the world's first "medical grade" genome, meaning it would be the first genome yet sequenced with such a high degree of accuracy.

X PRIZE will make the sequence available to any researchers who want to use it. The idea is that, with an extremely accurate genome to compare against one's own DNA, diseases will be much more highly predictable and the best possible treatments known from the outset.

The press event they discussed took place at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles and featured the "100 over 100" component of the prize. In sequencing this genome, the competing teams will be working with the DNA of 100 healthy centenarians. X PRIZE made Elizabeth Kieran, one of the 100-year-old participants, available to the press. Kieran got her degree in chemistry in the 1920s. As a pioneering woman, a centenarian and a chemist, she's a human interest story that could help X PRIZE convey why this competition matters to the lives of everyday people.

Press events like these are important because outside the science and engineering worlds, X PRIZE has low brand recognition, and the decision for corporate sponsors to support the prize may hinge on whether the brand has visibility. When you look at it that way, whether X PRIZE has the money to cure disease, clean up the world's oceans, maybe even colonize other planets, depends a lot on whether Halamandaris does her job well. It's a lot of responsibility. She'll know she succeeds if, when she mentions where she works, "people say, 'Oh my God, you've got the coolest job in the world.'"