I recently sat down with Dr. Jyotika Virmani, senior director of prize operations at XPRIZE (more on that ahead) and current prize lead on the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE

Visiting XPRIZE and speaking with Dr. Virmani was a fascinating journey through projects that impact large global scale issues. It got me thinking about the way the foundation functions and how it could be applied to small to medium sized businesses. 

If you aren't familiar with XPRIZE, here's the layman's description of what happens there.

  1. The organization identifies large scale global challenges and issues that are currently being ignored.
  2. XPRIZE finds a sponsor to fund or help put together a "prize" or competition that allows individuals and groups all over the world to enter to compete in developing a solution.
  3. The sponsor is responsible for the monetary award.
  4. The individuals and groups that are competing are responsible for finding their own funding to develop new technologies, techniques or in the case of the Ansari XPRIZE to build a spaceship that  ushered in a new industry for private space travel. 

It sounds quite simple, but the caliber of people working on these prizes is high. For example, Dr. Virmani makes it into my book of superior genetics and genius. Her current Ocean Discovery XPRIZE is geared around developing a breakthrough that can digitally map the ocean floor, with a bonus for the team that comes up with a 'smart sniffer,' which would use a biochemical signal to track the source of anything for which it's programmed. Currently only 5% of the ocean has been discovered; what the other 95% holds could change the future. This technology can advance virtual reality, create opportunities for medical advances, and potentially generate new ideas on how to conduct electricity by learning from ocean creatures that naturally conduct electricity. 

Solving large scale global issues helps create new industries all together - for example SpaceX and Virgin Galactic would not exist today without the Ansari XPRIZE for private space travel. 

Here are the two takeaways from the structure of XPRIZE that every entrepreneur and company can implement to create meaningful growth.

Focus on discovery

When XPRIZE teams identify an issue, they do not focus on "fixing" the issue but rather on discovering the issue. They first seek out all the failures around the issue, what's been done, what has not worked and learn from it. They provide context around the issue and identify what has yet to be discovered or invented. 

Many businesses and corporate teams look to blame a person or a reason for an issue or a challenge instead of inviting the entire team to discover the failure from a place of curiosity. Another way businesses and corporate teams trap themselves into a corner is by focusing on short term profitability rather than discovering and creating something new that could potentially create long term profitability. 

Businesses of any size can benefit from shifting their focus from fixing an issue to focusing on discovering an issue. 


To really grow a marketplace, there needs to be collaboration. Dr. Virmani shared with me that many of the teams that enter to compete on a prize are from a variety of backgrounds. High school students, for instance, were on the team competing on the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE.

The common interest to discover brings a sense of community and collaboration between a diverse group of people. At the end of the journey you get a result and foundation that creates profitability and momentum for humankind in the long run.

Many businesses like to assign responsibilities and liability to one or more people and create a hierarchy that alienates individuals and creates an environment that is a death to the spirit of collaboration. 

As I walk away thoroughly inspired from the XPRIZE tour, I ponder how these two takeaways can be implemented in my own company and personal life.