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X-prize expands ambitions

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The lure of cold, hard cash will help drive innovation in the 21st century, if a group of American philanthropists has its way. The billionaire-backed X-prize Foundation will offer big money incentives in several fields of science, The Guardian reports.

Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne last year became the first manned commercial spacecraft, after competing with 25 other teams to capture the $10m Ansari X-prize. Between them, they spent more than ten times that figure on the endeavour, which with the launch of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has heralded the dawn of space tourism.

Now, after that success, the Santa Monica, California-based X-prize Foundation plans to dangle its big carrots in front of other scientific milestones. A prize is set to be offered for cheap mass genome sequencing, which it is hoped will bring about medical advances by giving scientists a more complete picture of the differences, or polymorphisms, of DNA which causes diseases.

Also mooted are cash dividends for developing a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine and in pushing the frontiers of nanotechnology, along with a second space jackpot for putting a person in orbit. The group looks for vital or stalled fields where a breakthrough is most needed.

The not-for-profit X-prize Foundation was founded in the mid-90s by aerospace scientist and entrepreneur Dr Peter Diamandis to speed up space development. It now has the lofty aim of "enabling radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity".

Rather than as a vehicle for tearing down the tradition of selfless toil in the name of science, the X-prize Foundation views itself in the spirit of adventure. It claims a role as a torch-bearer for the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which was claimed by aviator Charles Lindbergh's 1927 nonstop New York to Paris flight.

According to the foundation's website, in its early days it drew sponsorship from business leaders and other rich types, including author Tom Clancy. Today, the board of trustees is a coterie of high-tech business leaders, with Google co-founder Larry Page, and genome pioneer Dr Craig Venter both involved. Venter was himself the first to offer a cash prize for technology that can bring the '$1,000 genome' to the public.

It emerged after his firm Celera Genomics competed with public collaborations to get the very first complete human genome that Venter, often derided as self-regarding, had indeed sequenced his own DNA. He had planned to offer access to the data on a pay-to-use basis, but abandoned that approach in the face of the free access public databases.

Despite much criticism of his methods and attitudes, many have since felt that Venter's competition and dynamism forced the entire field toward more rapid development – the environment the X-prize foundation hopes to foster with its new rewards.

When asked about Venter's $1,000 genome dream, Venter's public sector rival in the genome race, Dr Francis Collins, told the Wall Street Journal: "If Dr Venter's involvement can spur new technology, then more power to Dr Venter." The expanded program is certainly a radical departure from more traditional prestige-based awards like the Nobel.

Given the level of global public investment in biotechnology – set to rise to £1bn per year by 2008 in the UK by last year's science spending review – some have questioned whether the genome prize will have any effect.

Diamandis denied that the X-prize is all about money however: “A lot of the value is not just the cash, it's the heroism that goes along with winning the competition. It's what drives people to work around the clock and take risk to levels required for breakthroughs,” he told the Guardian. ®

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