Innovation Foundation Pushes Scientists To Delve Deep Into Struggling Oceans


The XPRIZE Foundation, which drives innovation through competition via highly-sought-after prize money is turning its gaze, and checkbook, away from the skies and down toward the seas with plans to launch three ocean-oriented competitions by 2020.

Geared toward breakthroughs that benefit humanity, this is the biggest push XPRIZE has ever made in a single area. Until now the XPRIZE has been best known for incentivizing the private space industry with prizes like the $10 million Ansari XPrize.

In a statement about the new ocean prizes, the Foundation says it is now getting involved in oceans to fill the void left as “governments around the world steadily reduce research and investment geared toward addressing ocean health.”

This push builds on the momentum from the September announcement of the $2 million Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPrize for the development of sensors to measure ocean acidification. The award is named after benefactor and wife of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt. Previously Wendy Schmidt sponsored $1.3 million in XPrizes to help fund efficient oil cleanup in the wake of the BP oil spill.

After the announcement of the ocean acidification prize, Paul Bunje, director of the UCLA Center for Climate Change Solutions and the XPrize Foundation’s lead scientist for the Ocean Health Prize, told Popular Mechanics:

“Most of the work to observe the oceans has fallen to a few national governments with some international coordination, and there’s been almost no private sector investment in that space. From our perspective, the real market failure is that for the past 200 years, we’ve forgotten about exploring the oceans. Humanity went through an age of exploration, but now we’re in an era where we really don’t know anything that we need to know about what’s going on under the oceans. We’ve only explored about 5 percent of the sea floor, which is a smaller percentage than what we’ve explored on the surface of Mars.”

Greenhouse gas emissions have changed the ocean’s make-up since the pre-industrial days of ocean exploration. Oceans are now about 30 percent more acidic than they were then, which is devastating coral reefs and other marine life. In fact, the oceans are more acidic now than they’ve been at any time in the last 300 million years, with a recent State of the Ocean report finding that levels of acidification are “unprecedented” and that ocean health is declining at faster rates than previously thought.

The XPRIZE Foundation will be employing crowdsourcing techniques for the first time with the new ocean competitions to help incorporate unique insights that might not come directly from the usual academics, NGOs, and government bodies.

“We know that crowdsourcing has enormous potential, so we are inviting the public to help us hone in on the Grand Challenges facing our oceans.” Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and CEO of XPRIZE, said in the press release. “Whether it’s overfishing, pollution, plastics, or the myriad of other challenges, hearing directly from concerned and motivated individuals will yield new and unexpected solutions.”