The idea of using a big cash prize as a catalyst for invention has become pretty popular, from the X-Prize for private space flight to the recent competition to get Windows up and running on an Intel Macintosh. Advocates for environmental technologies often suggest a prize as a way to generate interest in green innovations. With the new California Clean Tech Open, we're about to see if a "Green Prize" will be as successful as the X-Prize at bringing us to a new frontier.
The premise of the Clean-Tech Open is simple: each participant comes up with an overview plan for a technology-enabled green business in one of five categories; finalists then must produce the full-fledged business plan. Winners in each category (Energy Efficiency, Smart Power, Renewable Energy, Transportation, and Water Management) receive $50,000, along with a variety of professional services and a year's worth of office space; the overall winner receives an additional $50,000.
The folks running the competition seem to understand (PDF) the Bright Green big picture:
We believe that a new class of emerging clean technologies can help resolve many of the great challenges of our day:
Global demand for diminishing resources continues to grow. Demand for energy and raw materials is increasing dramatically driven in large part by the economies of China and India. Sustainable development must become a reality - the only option for a world of over 6 billion people. Long-term energy prices are trending upward. The many costs of foreign oil force us to consider the need for energy independence. Tens of millions of combustion engines powering a growing demand for automobiles and trucks continue to drive the use of fossil fuels and the proliferation of greenhouse gases. Managing environmental contamination has real costs including the need for better health care, water treatment, and soil remediation. Not polluting in the first place can be the most economical solution.
From that big picture perspective, it's particularly interesting to look a the list of sponsoring organizations. Alongside expected groups like EPRI and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, you find computer chip maker AMD, car company Lexus, and even Chevron's venture capital group. Sustainability and green technology really is no longer the sole bastion of idealists and activists.
The organization running the competition asks that only people who are serious about their business plans submit entries -- if you win, they want you to actually turn the idea into a business. The biggest downside of this competition is that it's only open to residents of California, which rules out a fairly large portion of our readers. Rather than curse the cruelty of fate, consider this a beta test for how one might create a similar regional competition for your own home state or country. The Clean-Tech Open has just started, and it may have some unexpected -- and unintended -- results; it'll be worth watching just to see what not to do in other competitions.
Finally, an important disclaimer: one of the advisors to the competition is Joel Makower, a frequent contributor to WorldChanging. That Joel is involved is, frankly, a sign that this is a good project, but readers should be aware of this relationship.
These sorts of contests are a great way to focus entrepreneurial zeal in world-changing directions. They internalize externalities at the invention stage and reduce risk for the inventors by providing a quick payout for the best solution. And they can target specific problems too. For example: The International Smart Gear Competition encourages the design of smarter, greener fishing gear with a $25,000 grand prize, as well as help in bringing the design to market. The contest organizers are "looking for practical, cost-effective solutions that reduce the incidental catch of sea turtles, cetaceans, fish bycatch and other non-target species in either fixed gear or nets." For more contests/awards like this see wikiforgood.org, "contests for a better world." I set up the wiki thinking these kinds of awards can use more press, and that seeing them all in one place might spur the creation of ideas for similar prizes.