February 13, 2007 Two heads are better than one. Six billion are even better. In solving big problems, you need a lot of brain power and the opportunity now exists via this wonderous global network to pour cubic brainpower on problems we need to solve. Tens of millions of scientifically trained minds all thinking about the same problem ensures that if there’s a way, we’ll find it.

In terms of setting the global scientific agenda and stimulating innovation, nothing seems to work quite as well as a clearly defined challenge and a big fat prize. It immediately gives that limitless source of human intelligence out there a focal point – throughout history, such prizes have consistently proven to be the most effective method of fast forwarding development of enabling technologies, opening new vistas of human endeavour and solving key society-enabling problems.

In announcing the Virgin Earth Challenge, Branson showed he had been an attentive student of innovation history when he said, “History has shown that Technology Prizes have been invaluable in encouraging technological advancements and innovation in many, many areas of science and industry.”

History has indeed given us many big thinkers who have left massive legacies – people whose macro perspective on the world is such that they can identify a seemingly insurmountable societal problem and set in motion the process of solving it with an audacious stroke and a lot of money.

In recent times we have seen DARPA’s Grand Challenge which gave us the world’s first truly autonomous vehicle inside a few years and for just a few million dollars. The Ansari X Prize fast-forwarded space development by decades. The British government offered the first prize of this type for a device capable of accurately measuring longitude in 1714. The prize was claimed 59 years later when clock maker, John Harrison (pictured) was awarded UKP 20,000 for devising an accurate and durable chronometer and it transformed our ability to sail the seas.

The French have often used prizes as an incentive to fuel innovation, with a 100,000 franc prize in 1775 resulting in an artificial form of alkali being produced and hence began the French chemical industry. Napolean is best known for his battlefield genius but a 12,000 francs he offered in 1810 resulted in the first vacuum sealed food. A newspaper prize catalyzed the first flight across the English channel in 1909 and reset human boundaries as to what was possible with powered flight.

Sir Richard Branson and Al Gore announced the Virgin Earth Challenge last week, a $25 million global science and technology prize to encourage a viable technology which will result in the removal of at least 1 billion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent per year. Branson is setting up of the new Global science and technology prize to be known as The Virgin Earth Challenge, in the belief that history has shown that prizes of this nature encourage technological advancements for the good of mankind.

The first recorded prize of this type was offered by the British government in 1714, in the form of financial incentives to the inventor who developed a device capable of measuring longitude within a given degree of accuracy. The Prize, which has been immortalised in the book Longitude, was won by John Harrison, a self-educated clock maker. Harrison was awarded £20,000 in 1773 for devising an accurate and durable chronometer.” In the 18th Century, the French used Prizes as an incentive to fuel innovation. In 1775 a 100,000 franc prize was offered to the individual who could produce an artificial form of alkali – the winning of this prize was to form the basis of the French chemical industry.

Today, vacuum packed food in our fridges and cupboards is nothing remarkable, but it may surprise some to know that it was actually a Prize offered by Napoleon in 1810 which led to Nicolas Appert coming up with a method of vacuum packing cooked food in glass bottles – it took him 15 years of experiments but in the end won him 12,000 francs!

It wasn’t long before newspapers and private sector companies became involved in setting up Prizes to encourage development in many areas. The American automobile industry was encouraged to grow through inducements to win prizes by competing in races set up by newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune in the late 19 th Century. Aviation and the development of long distance flying were greatly encouraged by similar prizes to those offered in America for the fledgling automobile industry. The Daily Mail prize for example, for the first flight across the Channel, was won by Louis Bleriot in 1909; and ten years later, Alcock and Brown won the Mail prize for crossing the Atlantic. Lindebergh was competing for a prize when he flew in the Spirit of St Louis, non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927. The Spitfire was the result of the Schneider trophy, which was a series of prizes for technological development.

The most recent technological Prize was awarded in the area of space travel, and is one that I have come to know very well - the Ansari X Prize – a $10 million dollar Prize set up by Peter Diamandis and funded by the Ansari family. The Ansari X Prize was won in 2004 by Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites when they successfully flew SpaceShipOne to space and back twice within two weeks. The technological feat of SpaceShipOne resulted in the Virgin Group licensing that technology to build five space ships and two White Knight carrier crafts and has given birth to a commercially viable space tourism industry for the future. Using the latest technology in hybrid rocket motors and next generation turbo fan engines SS2 and WK2 will be environmentally benign.”