As a summer intern at XPRIZE, I was able to peer into the innerworkings that fuel this innovation generating foundation. I met the men and women who work to inspire the next generation of startups by creating incentivized competitions to crowdsource solutions to the world’s grand challenges. Every day, these individuals work together to create roadmaps that will serve as the basis for future XPRIZE competitions with prizes that are always in the millions of dollars. And once these Impact Roadmaps become XPRIZE competitions open to the public, they play leading roles in ensuring that every competing team has the tools to achieve their full potential.
As of 2019, there have been 17 prizes launched in the domain areas of Energy, Environment, Civil Society, Human Health and Longevity, Learning, Exploration, and Mobility. XPRIZE is most known for its $10 million Ansari XPRIZE of 1996, which led to the launch of the first private citizen into outer space, the impetus for Virgin Galactic, and the creation of the multi-billion-dollar commercial space industry. The XPRIZE Impact Roadmaps, including the Future of Longevity, the Future of Housing, and the Future of Forests, offer insight into the ways in which people can come together and lead the way in changing the world for the betterment of all. As XPRIZE Founder and Executive Chairman Dr. Peter Diamandis explains it: “the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself!”
While at XPRIZE headquarters in Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to work in their Impact & Design team, and their Strategic Relations team. I helped improve their benefactor pipeline, as well as work on a preliminary research document for a new XPRIZE competition: a Wildfire Prize Design. I wrote a 50-page report on the ways in which XPRIZE can play a role in revolutionizing how wildfires are detected and extinguished. I also helped build out a community of experts who will play an important part in structuring this exciting competition.
During my time at XPRIZE, I also had the opportunity to meet and work with some of the incredible and inspirational full-time employees at XPRIZE. They are Mr. Sam Blake (Senior Research Associate), Dr. Shay Hershkovitz (Director of Research), and Ms. Sarah Saenz (Prize Manager). I was curious to learn about their background with XPRIZE and the work they do, and fortunately all three agreed to be interviewed for this article.
Astropreneurs: How did you first learn about XPRIZE?
Sam Blake: “XPRIZE did some recruiting at UCLA Anderson School of Management while I was a student there. A classmate and good friend of mine had been hired as a “Visioneer” to help design a competition around Alzheimer’s disease, and when his team had an opening he suggested I apply.”
Shay Hershkovitz: “As someone who was involved in research and long-term planning (as well as crowdsourcing), I was somewhat familiar with XPRIZE and Peter’s work. But I joined XPRIZE almost by coincidence. I was moving from Israel to the Bay Area following my wife’s work, and someone I knew at XPRIZE invited me for a visit. While chatting, he found out that I was looking for a new challenge here in the US, and there was an opening at XPRIZE! It was like a dream come true.”
Sarah Saenz: “I moved to LA from Las Vegas in 2016 with no job, family, or friends here. I knew the first thing I had to do was get myself out in the community and meet people so I went to a lot of Meet Up events and networked wherever I could. I met so many great people in my first two months in LA and one of them got me subscribed to an email list that sends out open positions at nonprofits before they are listed publicly. This is where I saw a listing for XPRIZE and after two months of searching for a job, it was the only job description and organization that really got me excited and eager to get the role. I then started doing my research to learn about XPRIZE and fell in love!”
Astropreneurs: How long have you been with XPRIZE?
Sam Blake: “I was a Visioneer from June to October 2017, and I’ve been back as a full-time employee since September 2018.”
Shay Hershkovitz: “Two years now.”
Sarah Saenz: “I started in August of 2016 so I have been here for 3 full years at the end of this month.”
Astropreneurs: What work have you done so far at XPRIZE?
Sam Blake: “As a Visioneer, two teammates and I designed a proposal for an Alzheimer’s disease Prize Design, which we presented at the 2017 Visioneering summit. Our proposal was awarded the top priority for XPRIZE to pursue as a possible competition. A little less than a year later, I was brought in full-time. From September through December, I worked with Caroline Kolta (Senior Associate) and Zenia Tata (Chief Impact Officer) on revamping the Alzheimer’s disease Prize Design, which needed to be reworked to adapt to how the market landscape had changed. When that work ended, I was assigned to the Future of Longevity Impact Roadmap team, which I’ve been working on since January 2019 as a hybrid analyst/project manager. Outside of these Impact & Design projects, I’ve helped with improving some internal processes, building out our internship program, and evaluating potential partners.”
Shay Hershkovitz: “I’m leading the research and analysis at XPRIZE. I direct the teams of analysts who generate the knowledge needed in order to identify the main challenges, and come up with breakthroughs and prize ideas based on these challenges. I also lead the methodological developments required for our unique type of research, as well as our expert-sourcing/online communities.”
Sarah Saenz: “I began as a Prize Associate for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, dealing mostly with closing out registration and being the main point of contact for the competing teams. During that time, I also helped a little with the Google Lunar XPRIZE —mostly facilitating weekly meetings and getting the team organized with filing, record keeping, etc. I was then promoted to Prize Manager for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE where I took on more responsibilities with budget and project management. I now split my time 50/50 with the Data Commons Team as a project manager as well.”
Astropreneurs: What is the most exciting experience you’ve had at XPRIZE?
Sam Blake: “Either winning Visioneering 2017 or attending the Undoing Aging conference in Berlin for the Future of Longevity Impact Roadmap.”
Shay Hershkovitz: “Every day is unique and interesting. But I think that activity I enjoyed most (to date) is the Future of Forests Impact Map, which I led.”
Sarah Saenz: “The most exciting experience I have had at XPRIZE is being able to travel. The favorite places I traveled to were Tokyo and Ghana during Round 1 Technology Readiness Testing of the Semi-Finalist Teams for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE. It was a hectic schedule and I was in a different place each week for about six weeks straight. I learned so much and got a chance to see teams in their hometowns, which was unique and really reminded me of the power of any person that has the drive and willingness to work towards changing the world for the better.”
Future of XPRIZE
Overall, the future of XPRIZE looks bright. Despite being founded in 1995, XPRIZE’s work culture is very much like that of the startups it helps nurture. Dr. Hershkovitz described it as “looking deep into the future, imaging how we would like the future to look like, and then working on creating this future. Our work is really about long-term impact.” Mr. Blake agreed, explaining that XPRIZE “has a unique approach of focusing on the prize philanthropy mechanism to affect massively impactful change that leverages the convergence of exponential technology.” In terms of next steps for XPRIZE, they plan on “incorporating more artificial intelligence (AI) technology in our prize design and our day-to-day work. For example, we are now examining new ways to use AI for our analytic needs. We also want to be a data-driven organization, making sure data (and analysis) determine and lead our efforts, and we want this data to be accessible for all.” Mr. Blake expanded on this by explaining that “XPRIZE will focus more on ensuring that the teams that compete in competitions have the capability to enter the market and affect real world change once the competition is over.” Already, this is seen in previous competitions such as the Google Lunar XPRIZE, from which such space startups as Moon Express, SpaceIL, and Astrobotic were born.
Posted by Richard Nederlander