Competitions everywhere

Competitions to spur technological innovation are much in the news these days. They seem to have the magic power to make exciting things happen quickly. In the last few days, maverick airplane designer Burt Rutan officially claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize for building the privately funded SpaceShipOne. Ansari Prize founder Peter Diamandis credits as his inspiration the $25,000 Orteig prize that Lindbergh won in 1927 for the solo crossing of the Atlantic.

In the shadow of the very successful Ansari competition, NASA is launching something called the Centennial Challenge. Among other things, the Challenge will provide prizes to encourage private space missions by giving specific awards for things like soft robotic lunar landing, micro reentry vehicle, solar sail station-keeping, aeroassist, and human orbital flight.

The prize craze extends into other industries beyond aerospace. InnoCentive is a company that does nothing but post and award prizes to chemists and chemical engineers who solve chemical problems of commercial value. Who needs an R&D department? Just post your problem (anonymously) and pay off your benefactor only when the work comes in.

I expect we will eventually run into contest fatigue as we squeeze this fad for all it’s worth. Then again, I thought reality TV would fade after a season or two, so who knows?