Featured Profiles

Innovating To Solve Global Challenges

Dr Peter Diamandis is avant-garde in the fields of innovation, commercial space, and sustainability. He is best known for being the founder of XPRIZE Foundation that uses competitions to innovate new technologies and solutions initiatives that address the biggest challenges we face today.


As a kid, Diamandis was mesmerized by space and was first inspired by the Apollo 11 moonwalk, which was a great feat achieved by humans as a species. While Diamandis aspired to become an astronaut, his parents pushed him to do medicine to take over his father’s ob/GYN clinic. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll try to do both,'” Diamandis recalled.


Simultaneously he experimented with different types of rockets. “I had pounds and pounds of potassium chloride and magnesium, and I blew up a variety of things. You used to be able to mail-order all of this stuff. If I did anything close to what I did back then I would be flagged as a terrorist,” he said. As a kid with a creative imagination equipped with D.I.Y. skills, he and his friend created many successful devices, some of which unfortunately blew up in their face.


When Diamandis started attending M.I.T., he was simultaneously also studying pre-med while keeping up with his passion project, a space group he co-founded. The Space Group named, ‘The Students for the Exploration & Development of Space’ now has more than 35 chapters on various campuses. “I learned how to manage people and raise money,” Diamandis says. “When I got my first $5,000 donation it felt like a million-dollar check.”


Diamandis was a brilliant premed student and won many accolades for his undergraduate research and ­secured his admission to Harvard Medical School. However, with just a year left to complete his graduation, he went back to M.I.T. to receive his degree in aeronautics and astronautics, then returned to Harvard to finish his M.D.


He founded International Microspace in 1988 with $2.5 million in private funds. He finally won a contract with the ‘Star Wars’ program funded by the Government. However, despite all his efforts, his project failed. But that did not dampen his spirits, Diamandis started researching new projects he could head.


In late 1993 Diamandis studied awards by 19th-and early-20th-century explorers and adventurers, notably the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which was a reward offered to the first Allied aviators to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris or vice versa that had never been done before at the time. It got him thinking how prizes, competition, greed, teamwork, bold and clear goals, and high visibility could produce innovative—and highly creative—approaches to ­problems.


“I called it the X Prize,” says Diamandis. “X stood for the name of the benefactor,” who was non-existent for a long time since it took him six years to find a backer. “Everyone kept saying no,” Diamandis recalls. Until he met telecom entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, who told a reporter in 2002 that she wanted a jaunt in space, Diamandis saw his opportunity and pounced; he arranged a meeting with Ansari, her husband, Hamid, and his brother Amir. “As soon as he said, ‘reusable flight, suborbital,’ we just looked at each other,” recalled Amir. Two years later, a craft by Microsoft Co-Founder Paul Allen and aerospace designer Burt Rutan made two trips into space in 14 days and captured the prize. And the X Prize was finally launched.


The goal at X Prize is to identify the world’s biggest challenges and create competitions that inspire brilliant minds across the globe to make technological breakthroughs and help solve them. The X Prize Foundation is a ­mini-industry with about 50 employees. They ­hold competitions in education, global development, energy and the ­environment, life sciences and space and undersea exploration. Diamandis says, “The world’s biggest problems are the world’s biggest market opportunities. And that’s a huge thing. Solve hunger, literacy and energy problems, get the gratitude of the world and become a billionaire in the process.”


The ocean’s declining health is one of the biggest market failures. We live in the day and age where climate change is a growing crisis, yet we give little to no thought to damaging the ecosystem surrounding us, and that is a pain point that X Prize is working to solve.


In the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Diamandis quickly responded by setting up the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X CHALLENGE, a $1.4-million competition to fasten the pace of cleaning up the oil on the surface. Just fourteen months after the dreaded incident, the winner demonstrated a device that achieved a cleanup rate almost four times faster than the industry’s previous best recovery rate.


Diamandis is an optimist and speaking on technology he says, “Every powerful technology that we’ve ever created is used for good and for bad. But look at the data over the long term – how the cost of food production per person has plummeted, how longevity has increased. I’m not saying there aren’t going to be challenges, but on the whole, technology is making the world a better place and will continue to. For me, it’s about uplifting those billions of people who have been in fundamental survival mode.”