In 1714, the British government was desperate for a scientific solution to a deadly problem. In the empire’s haste to explore—and conquer—the globe, British ships were frequently colliding with land before they knew they had reached it, because sailors had no way of keeping track of how far east or west they had traveled. Rather than appointing a group of experts to solve this so-called longitude problem, Parliament took a more unusual approach. It announced a substantial award for any person who could devise a reliable way of tracking longitude while at sea. After decades of work, John Harrison received the bulk of the prize purse, which amounted to about $4 million in today’s dollars.
Centuries later, prizes have become a popular alternative to typical approaches to scientific funding such as professors applying for grants or for-profit companies funding their own skunkworks. Prizes provide the opportunity for anyone to gain reward and recognition for their achievements—as long as they have enough resources to conduct that research in the first place. The most famous competitions—like the Darpa Grand Challenge for autonomous vehicle development, first issued in 2004, and the 1996 Ansari Xprize for Suborbital Spaceflight—have encouraged participants to build solutions to immense, long-term technological challenges.
But as the Covid-19 crisis has grown increasingly desperate in the US, both public and private entities are offering huge sums of money to anyone who can find solutions. In March, MIT issued a suite of Covid-related challenges with a total prize purse of over $2 million; the US government followed up in April with the xTech COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge. And late last month, Xprize, a non-governmental organization that specializes in funding competitions with multimillion-dollar rewards, teamed up with private company OpenCovidScreen for the Xprize Rapid Covid Testing competition, which is accepting submissions through the end of August and will disburse $5 million among up to five winning teams.
To receive the payout, entrants must devise a method that allows for fast, frequent, easy-to-use Covid-19 testing that costs “less than the price of a latte.” Teams first submit a written submission outlining their approach. They must then test a working prototype of their kit on an unlabeled set of samples provided by Xprize, some of which will contain SARS-CoV-2 material, to prove that they can accurately detect the presence of the novel coronavirus. If they are selected as finalists, teams then submit their test kits for clinical validation. The five teams with the best validation results will be declared winners, and the Xprize organization will help them to administer a pilot test in the real world. A mere two weeks after the prize was announced, nearly 300 teams had registered for the competition.
The US has consistently struggled to provide testing to residents, thanks to problems ranging from a shortage of supplies to a logjam at processing labs, and the crunch has only worsened this summer as the virus flared in hot spots like Florida, Arizona, and California. Now, as President Trump and his allies continue to put pressure on schools and businesses to reopen this fall, solutions are desperately needed. “Pragmatically, we need to do whatever it takes to solve it,” says Jeff Huber, founder and CEO of OpenCovidScreen.
Under ordinary circumstances, the Xprize staff tries to tackle specific problems for which their organization can offer something that traditional funding instruments cannot. “Normally, our prizes are very long-term competitions and not focused on immediate needs,” says Xprize CEO Anousheh Ansari. “And we usually try to go where there is a market failure—whether due to lack of awareness or lack of policies or lack of investment, there is no incentive for teams or companies to work on those types of solutions.”
Historically, this approach has led Xprize to embrace dramatic challenges with long-term consequences: private space travel, carbon capture, water scarcity. For example, in 2018, the Water Abundance Xprize honored a couple who designed a system to extract large volumes of water from the air; currently, the NRG Cosia Carbon Xprize is evaluating projects that transform atmospheric carbon into usable objects. It is precisely these problems, with their enormous effects on human life, that traditional funding mechanisms are ill-equipped to handle, Ansari believes. “The return on investment may take 10 years or more, and some investors are not ready for this type of investment,” she says. As a charity that doesn’t directly profit from the innovations it supports, Xprize can swoop in where firms fail.
But the Rapid Covid Testing competition is not a typical Xprize, because an ongoing pandemic is not a typical problem. There is no obvious market failure in the case of Covid-19 testing—any institution would jump at the chance to purchase a quick and easy test for the novel coronavirus, so there’s plenty of demand. “I would think that if you had a sophisticated biological laboratory, there’d already be a lot of incentive to do this,” says Joel Best, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware who has studied the role of prizes in contemporary life. “If somebody can devise a better Covid test,” he continues, “they are in line to make a lot of money anyway.”
And Covid-19 testing is a very different problem from blue-sky objectives like longitude measurement or autonomous vehicles. Whereas the competitions in pursuit of those goals lasted years, even decades, the pandemic is measured in months, and its problems can whipsaw the world in matters of weeks or days. “I wonder if all these competitions that were launched will produce results early enough to be used for this pandemic,” says Luciano Kay, a research associate at UC Santa Barbara’s Institute for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Research who has researched how prize competitions can spark innovation. “We don’t have much time to wait for a solution.”
In other words, there is no guarantee that competitions will make a difference in this crisis. “Not everything is suited to prizes,” says Jerome Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Dalhousie University and another prize competition expert.
Even so, Ansari feels there is a role for Xprize here. “There was a need to push things a little bit harder, to make them go where we need them to go faster,” she says. And Kay points out that the unique structure of competitions could facilitate discoveries that may not have been possible otherwise. “The lack of upfront funding actually triggers a lot of innovation,” he says. “People need to find a solution that is simpler, that is cheaper, that you can build really quick without all the traditional financial overhead.”
Current Covid-19 research may not be geared toward developing affordable solutions. Vaccine and test development so far have been dominated by the usual pharmaceutical suspects, according to Ansari. “When the government issued all these funding commitments, for example, for vaccines or testing, they went to all the large companies like Johnson and Johnson, not to a small innovator in their small lab,” she says. She believes that gargantuan companies may be less likely to make original, inspired progress than the people who will participate in the Xprize Rapid Covid Testing competition. Such contests typically attract different sorts of researchers—academics, to be sure, but also independent hobbyists, college students, and even high schoolers. “It would be a long shot for a high school team to come up with something that is completely a full solution out of the blue,” Huber says. But, he says, they may be able to provide insights about testing and contact tracing in school environments that could prove to be missing pieces of the puzzle for more established teams.
Davis thinks that the inclusion of young people is a strength of prize competitions. “I have great faith in youth,” he says, “because they're always asking the questions that nobody else will look at.” He adds, with a laugh, “Let’s face it, I’m 77. I think my real creative days were back when I was in my thirties and twenties.” And he agrees that it’s right to be skeptical of how innovative big companies can really be. “They have their own R&D outfits,” he says. “They have their bureaucrats, they have their decisionmakers and their policy makers. And they have people who strike out in predictable directions.”
If a cobbled-together group of laypeople working on Covid-19 testing in their spare time does end up winning, they would be continuing a tradition that stretches back to John Harrison, who won the longitude prize centuries ago. Harrison was a carpenter, and government officials were loath to recognize his achievements. “They were appalled that a tradesman solved the problem, and they tried hard to bilk him out of the money,” Best says. “But, eventually, he did receive it.”
Anyone who cracks the problem of rapid Covid-19 testing will be lauded as a hero. And even participants who don’t have much of a chance of winning the competition could still have a great deal to gain from it. “Lots of people participate knowing that they are not going to win,” Kay says. “That doesn’t matter because they can get free publicity, they can get free participation, access to resources, [they] can get participation in that community.”
For a young person, the experience and connections could jumpstart a career in technology development. Kay points out that the community of autonomous vehicle researchers may be able to trace its origins back to the Darpa Grand Challenge, which required teams to build a robotic car that could drive up to 150 miles without human intervention. “The outcome of the competition might be not necessarily a new technology, but probably the creation of a new community around the topic,” he says.
And this community doesn’t only include those who participate directly in the competition. “At their core,” says Kay, prize competitions “are a big promotional effort.” By introducing this contest, Xprize and OpenCovidScreen are attracting coverage and attention to the problem of rapid testing. (After all, this article wouldn’t exist without it.) One of the project’s primary goals, Huber says, is “getting smart people around the world to have a crisp articulation of, what's the highest-leverage problem to solve?”—though of course this benefit depends on Xprize and OpenCovidScreen having accurately identified that highest-leverage problem. In fact, today Xprize announced another related challenge: the Covid-19 CT Scan Collaborative, which will award $1.8 million to teams that can devise methods for using computed tomography scans to fight Covid-19.
The competition’s hosts get a benefit, too. “When an organization launches a competition, they are positioning themselves as an innovator in some way,” Kay says. Or, as Best puts it: “When you give a prize, you're telling the world that you are somebody who is of a certain status who is able to judge what's better or worse in this particular sector. So, you get some prestige out of awarding the prize.”
Huber’s hope isn’t necessarily that the winning team will solve the testing problem once and for all—instead, he thinks that the competition will do the greatest good if it fosters a diverse set of approaches. The need for testing is so great, he says, that one solution isn’t nearly enough. But many teams pursuing a variety of ideas may perhaps, in aggregate, make a great deal of difference.
This strategy has a certain modesty that is unusual for prize competitions. And whether or not their victor is able to come up with a solution to the current testing bottleneck, Ansari believes that Xprize still has a role to play in fighting pandemics, through attacking the grand challenges of environmental degradation and poverty that the contest has historically addressed. “We hope to solve those big, hairy, audacious problems,” she says. “And hopefully, that will eliminate pandemics altogether in future.”