Science prize wins $7m in BT funding

The US-based X Prize Foundation, which runs science and technology competitions with prizes worth more than $10m (€6.4m, £5.1m) each, is to “go global” in collaboration with BT.

Under an agreement to be announced on Thursday, the British telecoms giant will provide the non-profit foundation with $7m in operating funds that will cover the costs of developing new X Prizes “to solve some of the greatest challenges of our time”, particularly in energy, the environment and life sciences.

The foundation made its name with the original X Prize for suborbital space flight, won in 2004 by Burt Ratan (who is now in partnership with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic). Since then it has launched two new $10m prizes (for ultra-cheap genome sequencing and fuel-efficient cars) and a $30m prize sponsored by Google for the first private company to land a robotic rover on the moon.

Peter Diamandis, X Prize founder and chairman, said: “We have been very much a US-centred organisation. We wanted a partner who was global, with a base outside the US, and who shared our interest in driving innovation.”

BT, for its part, hopes the partnership will help promote its corporate expansion plans in North America. Its US revenues are rising at 15-20 per cent annually and reached about $1.5bn in the last financial year.

The foundation will use BT’s support to raise sponsorship and cover the costs of launching at least two new prizes a year. “Our goal is to launch $300m worth of prize purses over the next five years,” Mr Diamandis said. That would trigger spending of $3bn-$5bn by the competing teams.

The next prizes are likely to focus on cancer, renewable energy and oceanography. The foundation aims to revive a spirit of adventure in research, like the 18th-century prizes to measure longitude and the early 20th-century aviation prizes.

“I really want to challenge the current mechanisms of science,” said Mr Diamandis. “People have become so risk-averse that it is becoming difficult to make real breakthroughs. I want to give people incentives to take risks.”

Big-money prizes are becoming an increasingly popular way of stimulating innovation with governments as well as philanthropists. This week John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, proposed a $300m government prize to produce a more efficient electric car battery.

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