The Prize Economy

I’m a big fan of prizes and challenges.


Tim Ferris tells a good story about offering a serious prize to a group of Princeton students if they could contact a very famous person and get him/her to answer three questions. You should read that story - the outcome is interesting.

If I had a billion dollars, here are some of the prizes I would offer:

Make a robot who can throw a specially made flying disc (essentially, a Frisbee made of aluminum or magnesium or carbon graphite, with a sharp edge to cut the air) one mile and embed in a target no larger than 100 feet wide. It does not have to be caught by a human - in fact, I recommend humans stay out of the flight path. First group who does it gets $100k.

Make the world’s fastest human-powered land vehicle. Can have as many humans as you want, but no extra energy source. Has to set a speed record for average speed over a 200-m measuring distance on a flat course with no wind. I expect it will look a lot like a bicycle. There will be a bi-annual competition with $100k to the winners, $50k to second place, and $25k to third.

Make the world’s most efficient bike. The idea is to design a bicycle that can be ridden on a given route, which includes ascending and desending at least 2,000 vertical feet and goes for at least 50 miles, with the fewest watts necessary. This means it should have regenerative braking and a way to reapply energy put in to smooth out the load. No external power sources. In addition, this is a race, so the winner must show a combination of speed and efficiency.

Design a shrimp magnet - a device that gathers shrimp from the sea floor with less than 3 percent bycatch. Does not have to be fast, but it mustn’t harm the sea bed. Has to pass a reasonable test. Prize: $2 million. Amount doubles every two years until it is claimed (up to $32 million).

Design a vegan egg substitute. Many groups are working on this, and there are different definitions. Mine doesn’t need to make perfect omelettes, but it does have to really work in baking, pancakes, pasta, etc. $200k.

Design a plan for a vaccine for the common cold. There are about 30 cold viruses. If we could get one booster, rich people would be able to purchase immunity to the common cold. Over time, that price would come down, and everyone would benefit. The problem is that it’s very expensive to develop, test, and get approval for such a vaccine. Plus, viruses can mutate and thwart our efforts. The challenge is to find a clever way to solve that problem and also address any knock-on effects it may have. $1 million for the plan that can be implemented reasonably as judged by a panel of experts.

Create a company that designs and builds a bike specifically for cargo use in Africa. There have been many attempts at this. Designing the bike is only a small part of it. You have to design manufacturiing, assembly, distribution, service, and the economics. This should be a business plan plus prototype competition, and the winner gets $10 million in tranches to start building it. My suggestion: start in Rwanda, because Rwanda has roads.

I could keep going, but I’ll stop and ask … what competition would you design?