From orbit to India: Applying the XPRIZE model to global poverty

Zenia Tata, executive director of global development at XPRIZE. Photo by: XPRIZE

Zenia Tata, executive director of global development at the XPRIZE Foundation, stood in a room of top experts, industry leaders, and social entrepreneurs in water, malnutrition, waste, urban renewal, solar energy storage, and Internet connectivity.

They were gathered for a process XPRIZE calls “visioneering.”

“I am asking them to think like they were in a science fiction movie, to think what the world might look like and why this issue with water might just be something you read in the history books,” she said. “It goes from dreaming to making dreams reality. Then the ideas start coming out. And once those ideas start coming out, now you’re talking in XPRIZE terms.”

The XPRIZE slogan is “making the impossible possible.” At XPRIZE India, a satellite office far removed from headquarters in Los Angeles, California, Tata is modifying the moonshot approach to address problems in developing countries.

In 2004, the XPRIZE Foundation awarded $10 million to a suborbital human spacecraft. That prize worked as a catalyst for the private space industry that is taking off. Now Tata’s team is trying to use the same kind of incentivized competitions to supercharge global development. One challenge has been to find the middle ground between “science fiction” thinking and more immediate impact.

“The prize model is powerful because it democratizes innovation. It allows things to be achievable yet touch the edge of audacity. And it allows innovators to come from anywhere,” she said. “It also allows the donor community and the philanthropic community to only pay for success, and to demand that level of success.”

XPRIZE hired Tata, formerly executive director of International Development Enterprises, the nonprofit founded by Paul Polak, to turn the foundation’s gaze from the stars to impoverished communities — and to harness the same kind of “audacious” thinking about rocket systems to solve problems of poverty.

Paul Polak: Always curious, always learning

Age has not slowed Paul Polak, who, at 81, is leading three social ventures, with 10 more in the pipeline. We spoke with the visionary and social entrepreneur who shared the importance of always learning new stuff and what energizes him.

“The hardest thing for me was to teach people what we know inherently in international development, which is that everything is about tradeoffs,” she told Devex at the Social Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley.

“How do people buy into something they are unsure of?” she said, explaining that part of the challenge for her has been the lack of global development experience among her peers.

XPRIZE cannot take its model globally without disrupting it, Tata said, given that the kind of exponential change the organization aims for faces unique constraints in emerging markets.

XPRIZE is known for competitions that are focused on the future. For example, the Google Lunar XPRIZE launched in 2007. Teams competing in that challenge have until the end of 2017 to “land a privately funded rover on the moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit back high definition video and images.”

XPRIZE, Tata told Devex, will launch its first two global development competitions soon: one to make clean water more abundant, and the other to cut response time for women in distress. Tata said these competitions will last for a maximum of 15 to 18 months, so she can take the ideas to market as quickly as possible.

“It would be cool to have a women’s safety XPRIZE where a woman could send some kind of signal and a drone would come up behind her and film what is going on, but that’s not going to happen,” Tata said. “I mean, it may happen in ‘Minority Report’ in 2070, but it’s not going to happen by April of 2018 in India.”

In talks with potential sponsors and partners for competitions in areas like energy and waste, Tata is emphasizing the need to have more immediate impact at scale. She is working to secure advanced commitments from governments and water companies and hospitals to ensure water and women’s safety innovations can go to market as soon as the competitions close, she said.

When Tata joined XPRIZE, the organization had already made the decision to launch its office in Mumbai, India, which she called an ideal testing ground for a technology incubator and competition agency that needs a living lab to test for adoption. But while India has been a helpful anchor for XPRIZE to reach innovators, entrepreneurs, donors, and investors in its growing global development portfolio, Tata said she wants to be more strategic about where to find ideas that could then be scaled on a global level.

She plans to build a more agile team with employees based where they can access in person or via technology the innovators with the best ideas for future competitions.

Singapore, for example, would be an ideal base for an XPRIZE competition on renewable energy-based water desalination, she said.

Tata is in frequent touch with grand challenges teams at the U.S. Agency for International Development and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which in 2008 awarded the XPRIZE Foundation with a planning grant to develop a competition for tuberculosis diagnostics.

When Tata calls into meetings from her home office in Colorado, her face projects on screens spinning around on stands. The newest models of the Beam remote presence robot cost $1,000. The earliest models were $20,000 or more. Tata lights up when she imagines the potential applications for this same technology not only with her growing XPRIZE global development team but also in rural schools and clinics.

“This is not trickle down, but peer to peer transference, sharing ideas across borders and contexts,” she told Devex. “Fixing the problem might be about changing the scale of these technologies and making them ubiquitous and affordable and acceptable.”

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.