Is the XPRIZE really a “prize” at all?

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys. I like to think that I can smell a rat. Maybe not immediately, but pretty quickly, particularly when it comes to the subject of climate change. In the past two years, I’ve seen a lot of audaciously bad behavior, outright deception, and enough duplicity to make my head spin. I try to deal with it using “gallows humor,” particularly when I convey it to my readers, because I know that too much bad news really wears you (and me) down.

I think that, as humans, our primitive brains try to categorize people, situations, and “things,” as friend or foe, good or bad, harmful or helpful, because if we didn’t simplify and take shortcuts with all the stuff our brains have to process, we’d be paralyzed with uncertainty. It’s physically and mentally exhausting to always have one’s proverbial guard up, and so, for me, it can be simpler to just make, at the very least, a few basic assumptions. In my mind, I think of them as my Ground Rules:

Ground Rule #1. Corporations are NOT people, nor are they the cute or friendly “ads” or personalities that serve as their front. When it comes to corporations, I default to leery, skeptical and untrusting, because corporations have one goal (or purpose), and that’s to make money. This is not being cynical…it’s just reality.

Ground Rule #2. Whenever (and I mean literally every single time, without exception) I see the fossil fuel industry involved in anything, the certainty that there is something underhanded going on inevitably gets confirmed.

Ground Rule #3. For me, the jury is still out (but sliding into the “negative territory”) on foundations and non-profits. In truth, I’ve seen much more “bad” than “good” being accomplished, with too many millions to count being squandered on lavish salaries and unnecessary expenses, but I’ve not shut the door on all of them being this way. Yet.

Ground Rule #4. Whenever there is money involved, be suspicious.

There are some gray areas, and also some people and organizations which transcend one category or cannot be dismissed (Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and James Hansen come to mind), but the four general rules which I listed above help me navigate through the minefields I experience regarding many things, including issues like climate change and energy policy.

I recently happened upon an article in Scientific American’s online blog, which can be read here and which (initially) defied easy categorization. It’s titled, “How to Transform Our Energy System.” Hmm. Okay. I’d never heard of the author, Paul Bunje, but I was willing to give it a read, particularly because it had this subheading:

“It’s necessary in order to save the climate, but steady improvement won’t make it happen”

Okay. Odd priming, but whatever.  The first paragraph from his article felt like it was lifted out of the fossil fuel industry playbook. Here’s what the first paragraph said:

“Access to affordable and abundant energy has enabled some of the most incredible advances in human history. Worldwide, cheap energy has fueled massive economic growth, lifted billions of people out of poverty, expanded agricultural production, and lengthened human lifespans.”

When you see turns of phrase like, “abundant energy,” and “lifting billions out of poverty” (which I’ve underlined above), alarm bells should go off in your head, because those are some of that industry’s most overused expressions. There were several more paragraphs in the Scientific American article which might lead one to think that this Paul Bunje means well…that he just wants to gather all the (secretly brilliant segment of the) huddled masses together to turn the corner on humanity’s messy energy legacy, such as this paragraph:

“By harnessing genius of the crowd, we can rapidly identify energy breakthroughs because we exponentially increase both the number of innovators and the diversity of problem-solving approaches. Open innovation–crowdsourcing, challenge grants, hackathons, and others–gives innovators everywhere more shots on goal. And all we need is one shot to go in.”

“All we need is one shot to go in.” Nice hockey language, which actually turns out to be quite fitting here.

The Scientific American article concludes with a plug for an active contest which Bunje oversees at the XPRIZE Foundation:

“We recently announced the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a four-year competition that challenges anyone from anywhere in the world to develop innovative approaches for converting CO2 emissions into valuable products. The teams that convert the most CO2 from a working power plant into products that have the highest value will take home the $20 million prize.

The Carbon XPRIZE highlights how we can target solutions to specific problems by reducing the cost of finding new solutions in the energy industry. Open innovation tools and the power of the crowd can become our greatest assets in reducing the risk that comes with disrupting a critical system like energy.”

I’d heard of the XPRIZE before, but this time I decided to see what all the fuss was about. The first thing I did was something I always do, which is to see who are on the Board of Directors and the Board of Trustees. This usually solves about 75% of the puzzle for me. But this one really threw me off (on the Trustees side of the equation). Among that group of 24 Trustees at the XPRIZE Foundation were:

Elon Musk: space guy, Paypal, innovator, entrepreneur;
Erik Lindbergh: grandson of Charles Lindbergh;
Eric Hirshberg: Game designer of Call of Duty franchise;
James Cameron: filmmaker of such big movies like Titanic, and lover of the oceans;
Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post;
Larry Page: Google;
Ali Velsher: journalist and reporter;
Ratan Tata: everything that transports, or is made of metal in India says, “TATA;”
Craig Venter: controversial genomic scientist;
Will Wright: another gamer, this time of Sim City and Spore fame;
Richard Garriott de Cayeux: yet another gamer – head of Electronic Arts.

It’s like that children’s game where you see some things which don’t seem to go together, and you have to pick them out, except I wasn’t seeing much of any pattern or direction, initially. So I “swooped out” and took a more macro look at the XPRIZE Foundation, and, in particular, their Carbon XPRIZE.

So there’s a contest being held by this Foundation which has an extremely odd, yet slightly promising, group of individuals at its helm. The contest itself, which has the word “carbon” in its title (alarm bells) along with the name of a fossil fuel company (“NRG”) has been written up in Scientific American. This is weird, but not in a good way.

I knew that the XPRIZE Foundation held other contests, but my first order of business was to see what this Carbon Prize was all about. So it’s called the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, with NRG being a fossil fuel company, but I didn’t know what COSIA was (or stood for). The stated purpose of the competition, which will apparently end with $20 million dollars being awarded in prize money, is:

“The $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE will challenge the world to reimagine what we can do with CO2 emissions by incentivizing and accelerating the development of technologies that convert CO2 into valuable products. These technologies have the potential to transform how the world approaches CO2 mitigation, and reduce the cost of managing CO2.”

And:

“The prize will incentivize development of new and emerging CO2 conversion technologies, accelerating them from laboratory testing to demonstration under real world conditions. The prize will help identify the most promising pathways for CO2 conversion and prove they can be deployed at power plants and other industrial facilities.”

After you click this link to who else is sponsoring the competition, you’ll see just how fast it began sliding into the muck. Or should I say into the tar sands

candian-oil-sands-615

In fact, when I read who was really behind this absolutely horrible “competition,” I almost lost my lunch. I’m not even kidding. Now, keep in mind who sits on the XPRIZE Board of Trustees, which I’ve referred to above, and then peruse the list of NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE sponsors (again, you can see their list here):

COSIA: stands for Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance;
Canadian Natural: An oil and natural gas company which drills for oil in Western Canada, the North Sea and offshore Africa;
Cenovus: Canadian oil and gas and Alberta tar sands company;
ConocoPhillips Canada: oil and gas company;
Devon Energy: Oklahoma-based oil and gas company which is also in the Alberta tar sands;
Nexen Energy: oil, gas, and Alberta tar sands company;
Shell Oil: enough said;
Suncor: oil and gas and the Alberta tar sands company.

If you think that this all seems incongruous and decidedly underhanded, as that old saying goes, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” It gets worse. I dug a little deeper, and it turns out that it’s not really a contest for any poor schmuck off the streets who thinks they might have a nifty idea, unless, of course, they’re already well-entrenched in this industry, and have years to spend on the competition. Just to “enter” the competition, you have to PAY this Foundation $5,000 per entry, or “idea” (it’s $8,000 if you enter past the initial deadline), and the judging and competition lasts nearly five YEARS (54 months), with several rounds and judging categories broken down into carbon emitted from coal power plants, and carbon emitted from natural gas power plants. WAAAAT? 

When they refer to the whole point of the thing being “converting CO2 into valuable products,” you have to understand what they mean by “valuable,” because for the fossil fuel industry it means they’re trying to find a way to continue to extract and burn fossil fuels with the added bonus of ALSO being able to make money (on the back end of that process) by capturing and converting (or profiting off of the sale of) the by-products of that fossil fuel burning into other icky stuff like (I’m not making this up): gasoline, ethylene, methanol, propylene, or formic acid to sell and make (more) money. In short, and this isn’t a secret, the fossil fuel industry has a few huge problem which involves their carbon emissions, plus, as everyone is already aware, the price for their products on the world market has plummeted. Their ingenious plan contest here, at least, is that they want YOU to pay them to enter a competition to help them solve, at least partially, some of their financial and environmental (which translates into financial) problems. And not only solve it, but help them make more money from that pesky carbon which they are inevitably emitting.

The cool picture which accompanies the entire conceptual selling point of this scam competition implies that some kid, in his garage, is going to (somehow) make a pair of sunglasses out of the crap that is being spewed out into the atmosphere, heating up the planet. Of course (they’d argue), technically speaking, those sunglasses are made of plastic, so there’s that.

carbon x

Keep in mind that they say they’re going to pair down all the entries to just 30 teams, so that’s somewhere between $150,000 – $240,000 in just entry fees from whoever gets past the first round. If they had 100 entries (and from looking at past competitions, it seems they sometimes have hundreds of entries per contest), they’d be taking in between half a million to $800,000 in just entry fees, which is probably why Bunje was pushing the contest on Scientific American. In fact, the head of the XPRIZE Foundation, Peter Diamandis says that the whole thing “working” relies on good public relations so that there is a lot of interest in the contests and prize money. No kidding.

Is it just me or does this seem like a philanthropic Ponzi scheme? They take in money to enter the competition, which lasts years (so they’ve already got the entrance fees), and then eventually (or not, in one contest), pay it out in dribs and drabs. In the case of their genomic sequencing competition, two teams worked, at their own expense, to win the competition, which, several years into the contest, got cancelled.

But let’s get back to this Carbon XPRIZE. Imagine you’ve got some sort of idea about how to deal with the carbon spewing from power plants, and you want to win a prize. Competitions are fun, right? And let’s just say you have 54 months to work on something, which may, or may not, ever be possible? What’s all the effort for? To help the fossil fuel industry not only continue to skin our planet alive, but pay them to help clean up their mess? So that you can make them more money from that same environmental devastation? It’s diabolical, really.

Syncrude Oil Operations in Alberta Tar Sands
Aerial view of Syncrude Aurora tar sands mine in the Boreal forest north of Fort McMurray.

It got me wondering about the other big “competitions” at the XPRIZE Foundation. Did they work the same way? Yep. Turns out that you can also pony up either $2,000 or $5,000 (late registration will cost you more) to help Shell Oil more quickly and effectively crawl along the bottom of the ocean and map it out better so they can find more oil reserves. That one is called the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE competition. They pared that competition down to 25 entries, so that one would bring in another couple of hundreds of thousands of dollars in just entry fees – and for what? To help Shell Oil do more damage?

  . Mind = blown

A few years ago, there was an XPRIZE competition run by Qualcomm which had over 300 entries which would have netted between $1,560,000 and $7,800,000 dollars in just entry fees. Qualcomm, the multinational semiconductor company, needed help perfecting their health monitoring devices, so they had that contest, which people paid to participate in, to help them with their product.

There are just so many onion layers of wrong here. This XPRIZE thing sounds more like the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes scam of yore than anything Paul Bunje is trying to talk up in his Scientific American article. And the players involved in the Foundation don’t seem at all aligned with what’s going on. It’s like the worst sock drawer ever, just filled with mismatches. I have to wonder if the purpose of the XPRIZE Foundation is just to be a money-making, tax deducting (for the corporations and the rich people involved) juggernaut, or did it at least start out as something which tried to achieve some greater “good?”  I really don’t know, but there is one thing I’m certain of: that Carbon XPRIZE is rotten to its core.

The first XPRIZE competition was launched in 1996. Entrepreneur Peter Diamandis offered a $10 million dollar prize (although he didn’t actually have the $10 million dollars when he offered it) to the first privately financed team that could build and fly a 3-person passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space two times in 2 weeks (thus, it was at least partially reusable). This competition spurred 26 teams from 6 nations to invest $100 million (of their own money) to compete for the $10 million prize. In 2004, an American team, underwritten by Paul Allen, won the $10 million prize money, which was ultimately funded through an insurance policy underwritten by the Anousheh and Hamid Ansari Family, so the competition was renamed the Ansari XPRIZE (in their honor).

There have been other contests, active, proposed, and completed, which include a Progressive Auto XPRIZE (underwritten by the Department of Energy and Progressive Insurance, among others) which aimed for over 100 mpg fuel efficiency, and the Wendy Schmidt XPRIZE whose aim was to increase the amount of oil recovered after an oil spill. There’s also a Google Lunar XPRIZE which is on-going and which seeks to put a robot on the Moon’s surface, which must then travel at least 500 meters and then beam HD video back to Earth. These sound like interesting, if not worthy, competitions. But then there’s the Shell Oil ocean floor mapping XPRIZE which may result in some non-extractive benefits as a by-product of the real aim of the contest, but let’s face it – do we really need to help Shell Oil exploit more of the planet’s natural resources? I don’t think so.

So despite some (probably) well-intentioned competitions, there are plenty of self-serving, really bad ones in there as well. And there is a TON of money in this Foundation which is being spent in ways that do not benefit those of us not riding the gravy train. This  harks back to Ground Rule #3 about foundations. It’s disgusting, really. Just glancing at the XPRIZE Foundation’s 990’s from 2004 to 2014, I can see that they’ve taken in just under $200 million dollars. And when prizes are awarded, that money does not seem to pass through the Foundation. In other words, when the first XPRIZE was awarded in 2004, that $10 million dollars wasn’t paid for by the XPRIZE Foundation. It was paid for by Anousheh Ansari’s insurance policy. The Progressive XPRIZE money came from several sources, including the Department of Energy and Progressive Insurance.

Again, to me, it looks, and feels, like a Ponzi scheme. Take a bunch of money up front from people who want to win a prize, drag out those contests, sometimes for years, with no awards being given at all, all the while, you continue to get corporate contributions, you pay no taxes (because of the 501(c)3 status), spend (beyond) exorbitantly, pay yourself, and your friends (and even one of your Trustee’s daughters) a ton of money, constantly drumming up support and attention for the contests, which (infinite playback loop here) generate more money….I don’t like it. Not one bit. But I do like the Huffington Post, and Arianna Huffington is on the Board of Trustees here. And I do like Tesla, and what Elon Musk has achieved, and he’s on the Board of Trustees here, too. I like a lot of the people and what they “stand for” on this Board of Trustees. Hell, I’d probably like Peter Diamandis. By all accounts, he sounds interesting and charming and everything, but I can’t unsee what’s going on here. I just can’t. This is why I don’t want to get grant money. I don’t want to be beholden to something, or someone, that isn’t making things better. This is why I have a GoFundMe campaign (which I never promote because I feel bad asking for contributions) despite the fact that I can’t keep funding this by myself, spending all of my time doing this…for nothing. No one wants to pay someone to help people see what’s going on so we have the impetus to even begin to fight climate change…but there’s tons of money to send a robot into space. Go figure.

Here are links to the 990’s (tax information) for the XPRIZE Foundation, for years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. You can decide for yourself (this is all in the public domain). If you’ve never perused a non-profit’s 990 before, first of all, make sure you’re sitting down and you’ve digested your last meal because it can be nauseating, and I’ll give you another one to hold up for comparison. This, by the way, goes back to what I was saying about my “gray area,” where, for example, you have someone like Bill McKibben who runs 350.org. If you look at 350.org’s 990 (I’ve included their 2013 990 here) and just try to find Bill McKibben’s cut of the gravy train, you won’t. Not only because he’s not milking the non-profit system for all it’s worth, but also because the spending and general activities of a group like 350.org are entirely different and more “normal” than the XPRIZE Foundation. Sure, trying to get people to fly to the Moon costs a lot, but is it that much more than, for example, the costs associated with saving the planet? But the XPRIZE Foundation isn’t funding the actual efforts to fly to the Moon, etc. They’re using other people’s money to do that, and I think some might say that Peter Diamandis’ boastful statement about (someone, just not him) dangling $10 million dollars in prize money in front of people to prod them to (eventually) spend $100 million dollars of their own money just to hatch a space tourism business, not to mention the years wasted spent doing it, is the the most arrogant form of hubris ever.

So I’m awarding a prize of my own. I’ll call it “The Most Disturbing XPRIZE” and the winner is the Happiness XPRIZE challenge, sponsored by Coca-Cola. Don’t let their banner photo fool you for a moment:

happpiness
because this one has nothing to do with making anyone happy:

“The winning technology will most accurately predict happiness in a test population of 100 randomly selected individuals. It will be scalable, portable, user-friendly, engaging, empowering, and addictive.

Catch that last word? Addictive.

Moreover, its stated purpose is so creepy that it makes me wonder if Coca-Cola isn’t just looking for ways to recapture the euphoria of the days when their products actually had coke in them:

“Companies will use the top technologies from Phase I of the competition to measure the effect that their policies have on employee’s happiness.”

To read more about it, click this link and go to page 55.

The good news here…indeed, the only saving grace, is that it doesn’t appear that THIS particular competition is underway yet. I wonder how much it would even cost to enter in such a challenge? Most people already know that there’s no “secret” to happiness, which is not something that can be measured like a couch, or a picture frame. Happiness is easily nurtured with kindness, fairness, and empathy, especially when there’s the absence of fear or existential threat. The key word above is “people,” because, as I wrote in Ground Rule #1, corporations are not people. Corporations, and indeed, some non-profits, have, as their sole purpose, moneymaking, and we should never forget that they’ll do virtually anything to keep themselves in the game, even attempting to “detect, measure, and quantify our emotional and mental states.” Ew.

 

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3 comments

  1. The more I read about this Diamandis seems to me to be a brilliant and very slick charming hustler, a charlatan and snake oil salesman of the first order. He sells his message of technological nirvana (always just around the corner) as the solution to all our problems. There is no reason for us to worry, or even do anything, because smart tech solutions will fix everything and soon we will be living in the land of endless plenty. Just read his book “Abundance” which is so popular, because folks want to be told that every thing will be fine, instead of the truth. It is a version of “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, except Abundance is actually supposed to be serious and factually driven. Just peel away the onion to see the rot below.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This article makes me breathe a sigh of relief – thank you so much. I am an inventor who has patented a method to convert carbon dioxide into nanodiamond through a detonation process (I know – sounds a little “out there” but it’s true). I considered entering this contest but declined because I felt like there was something wrong about paying such a large fee and wondered if the competition was legit. Thanks for sharing your enlightening perspective and interesting research on this – you are making the world a better place.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so welcome, Daren. I’m glad you didn’t waste your time and money on that mess. I don’t know if it started out “good,” and then went “bad,” or if it was rotten from the beginning, but it sure is dodgy. Considering that the initial prize money was offered with no actual funds “in the bank” to provide it to the winner is a bad sign, to me at least. Have a nice day!

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